I love narrators who communicate so effectively through their unique mannerisms and thoughts that I am part of their world in just a few sentences. Eleven-year-old Franny Chapman is such a girl in Countdown by Deborah Wiles. She loves Nancy Drew, thinks she is invisible to her teacher, Mrs. Rodriquez, and silently “telegraphs” messages to others in important situations. Living in their house just outside Andrews Air Force Base (with the Pepto-Bismol pink kitchen), she is filled with anxiety and angst. Understandably so. It is 1962 in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her mother seems to busy to notice her. Her father is flying most weeks. Her older sister, Jo Ellen, is becoming more secretive each week about the student groups at college. Her younger brother, Drew, reads about atoms and does everything perfectly. Uncle Otts, who also resides in the house and embarrasses the family with his WWII dress and commands, wakes her up own morning to the sound of reveille and plans for a bomb shelter in the backyard! Her friends seem to be changing without her as well.
A character’s love of books and words charms me. Franny’s admiration for Nancy Drew goes beyond her desire to solve mysteries. She aspires to figure out the mysterious letters in Jo Ellen’s stash (which Franny has carefully removed with assistance from her sometimes-friend Maggie) and says “without a book I don’t want to be alone at recess.” The words and titles of Jo Ellen’s “world’s best 45-rpm collection” define her existence, she says. “I can tell my whole life story through Jo Ellen’s records.” For an eleven-year-old girl, lines like “Are you lonesome tonight?” characterize her life! And as she tries to understand all the events of the world around her, Franny is compelled to compose a letter to Chairman Krushchev, thoughtfully suggesting they should get to know one another and writing,
“If you could see the world from outer space, the way my brother, Drew,
sees it, you would know that we are all made of the same things: atoms
and air and water and skin and bones and blood, and lots of the same
hopes and fears.”
As Franny struggles to find friends, to fit in, to understand the politics of the 1960s, and to be visible, I remembered with her the times in my life when I sought identity and acknowledgment from teachers, my parents, my brother, and others who shaped my character. The events occurring around her are interspersed for the reader as mini-documentaries between chapters. Headlines, photographs, quotations, Bert the Turtle Duck and Cover drills, prices (e.g. gas = 31¢ a gallon), sports (Sandy Koufax’s no-hitter), songs (“Where have all the flowers gone?”), student movements, a list of bomb shelter materials, maps, and biographies (Harry Truman, Pete Seeger, and more) bring the history of the time period up close at opportune times in the narration.
From the embossed 45 record on the book’s cover to the author’s notes about her own history in Camp Springs, Maryland, this captivating book took me to a time just before my birth, and Franny convincingly began her story (a trilogy!) which I look forward to finishing in the years to come.