Harry Mazer

A Boy at War

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A Boy at War Summary

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A Boy at War is a 2001 historical fiction novel by Harry Mazer. It is the first part of a trilogy focusing on the life of Adam Pelko as he is involved in key moments in 20th century American war history. In A Boy at War, Adam is a young boy when he witnesses firsthand the events of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

As the book opens, Adam has recently moved to Hawaii with his family and is attending a new school. His father is in the Navy, and this is the first time that Adam gets to go to a normal high school instead of a military one. He struggles to make friends since the locals are suspicious of military kids, but does manage to befriend two boys in his year. These are Davi Mori, a Japanese-American boy, and Martin Kahahawai, a Native Hawaiian.

Adam’s father, Lt Emory Pelko, is a strict man who upholds military values and precision in his house, to the point of regularly inspecting the cleanliness of Adam’s room. He does not like the idea of his son being friends with a Japanese boy, even one born in America, since he believes war with Japan to be imminent and that Davi’s loyalty is bound to Japan. Furthermore, he thinks the boys’ friendship would look bad for his career, so he orders Adam to stop spending time with Davi.

By the time this happens, however, Adam has already arranged to meet Davi and Martin to go fishing on Sunday. Adam’s father is called to work at the ship he is stationed on, called The Arizona, on Saturday evening to cover for a coworker, so Adam sees an opportunity to go speak to Davi. He intends to tell him in person that he can’t go fishing so as to not hurt his feelings, but when Martin shows up, Adam decides to just go along with it.

The boys head out to the base at Pearl Harbor on their bikes and slip under a fence. At first, they fish on land, but when they see a rowboat they decide to take it out into the water. They don’t even have time to start fishing before they start hearing airplanes overhead and seeing explosions in the distance. At first, the boys assume they have been caught in a drill or even that they are on a film set, but Adam eventually realizes that the planes are Japanese and that the American base is under attack.

Adam suddenly notices that Davi appears to be cheering, or waving at the planes. He immediately thinks of what his father told him about Davi’s loyalty to Japan, and believes that the whole plan had somehow been a ploy for Davi to signal to the Japanese planes and help with the attack. Furious, Adam attacks Davi, but Martin soon breaks up the fight.

The boys start rowing towards the shore to get away from the danger, but Adam soon sees the Arizona explode dramatically and begin sinking. He watches as the boat disappears into the water, not knowing whether his father was on there at the time of the attack. A plane starts shooting at them. The boys are blown out of the boat and Martin is injured by a splinter of wood.

Adam and Davi succeed in swimming to shore with Martin and find a Red Cross car to rescue them. However, an American soldier spots Davi and believing him to be a Japanese enemy, attacks him. The boys are separated. Adam and Martin almost get away from the scene in the car, but Adam is thrown out of the vehicle during a sharp swerve.

Now alone, Adam returns to the harbor to see if he can find any sign of his father. An officer approaches and, believing him to be a sailor, demands that Adam row him out to the USS West Virginia. In the chaos, Adam is told to help carry ammunition to the battleship, but he manages to escape from the other officers in the rowboat. He starts pulling men out of the water and rowing them to shore.

Adam continues helping as best as he can throughout the day, constantly trying to find out whether his father survived the attack. When the Japanese leave Pearl Harbor in the morning, Adam sneaks away from the base and returns home, where his mother and sister Bea are anxiously waiting. He tells them what happened and what he saw, and the family starts waiting for any news about the Lieutenant.

About a week after the attack, they finally receive news. Lt Emory Pelko has been declared missing in action. Adam’s mother wants to move to the mainland and, despite initial protests, Adam agrees.

A Boy At War is written primarily for a middle-school audience, and is a very short book. It’s simple language and tone has been source of some criticism, for instance by Kirkus Review, who wrote that the subject matter has been handled with more depth and skill in other similar young adult novels. On the other hand, the book has been praised by some for its treatment of the subject of racism, presenting both Adam’s struggle to differentiate between his friend Davi and the Japanese enemies and his eventual conclusion that the two cannot be equated simply because of their shared features.