48 pages 1 hour read

Cynthia Kadohata


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Cynthia Kadohata’s Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam is a work of historical fiction that centers around a dog, Cracker, and her handler, Rick Hanski, during their deployment in Vietnam. It is aimed at an audience of middle-grade readers but is also an enjoyable and educational read for adults. Told from the perspective of both the canine and human main characters, Kadohata reveals the vitally important work conducted by military dogs and their handlers during the Vietnam War. In doing so, she also explores the triumphs and tragedies of American soldiers deployed in this contentious war. Kadohata’s historical fiction touches on the themes of Companionship and Loyalty, Ambition for Greatness, and War and Conflict.

This guide utilizes the hardcover 2007 Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division edition of Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide contain descriptions of wartime violence.

Plot Summary

Cracker and her beloved owner, 10-year-old Willie, play in the streets around Willie’s apartment, as they do every day after Willie has finished school. Cracker senses that her young owner is unhappy but does not know the cause of his unhappiness.

Willie, despondent and upset, reflects on the fact that he must surrender his beloved Cracker because his family has moved to an apartment building where dogs are not allowed. Willie has decided to give Cracker to the Army, which is recruiting combat and sniffer dogs for the ongoing Vietnam War. A man from the Army comes to take Cracker away. Willie is devastated, and Cracker is upset and confused. She is taken via a series of planes and trucks to a military training base at Fort Benning, where the training personnel conclude that she may be too ferocious to be trained.

Meanwhile, Rick Hanski, a 17-year-old from Wisconsin, enlists in the Army, wishing to prove that he is destined for more than working in his family’s small hardware store. Using a connection with a family friend, he is placed in the dog handling division and goes to train at Fort Benning. To his chagrin, he is allocated Cracker, who is known to be enormous and vicious.

Cracker initially lunges at Rick. She misses Willie and is skeptical of all other humans. Rick brings her a sausage, and she begins to tolerate him; however, Rick and Cracker are the worst pair in training, and Rick feels frustrated and humiliated. Rick’s friend, Cody, and Cody’s dog, Bruno, are the best pair, and Rick envies them. Rick also befriends Twenty-Twenty, nicknamed for his habit of rolling his eyes constantly. Rick, Cody, and Twenty become close, as do their respective dogs, Cracker, Bruno, and Tristie.

One evening, Rick visits Cracker in her pen. He lets her out, and they run together through the dark, enjoying each other’s company. Rick has a revelation that Cracker is intelligent but obstinate. They begin to perform better at training, but Rick’s sergeant, U-Haul, is resolutely harsh and critical of Rick. Despite U-Haul’s obvious skepticism, Rick determinedly informs him that “Cracker and I are going to whip the world” (78).

Rick and Cracker are deployed to Vietnam. Rick is amazed and overwhelmed by former Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), which is bustling with civilians and soldiers and filled with foreign sights, sounds, and smells. They go to an Army base that is totally devoid of any structures. They barter for supplies, and Rick leads his division in building pens for the dogs to stay dry and safe.

Rick and Cracker go on their first serious mission, leading 150 men through a “hot” (active with Vietcong soldiers) area. Cracker successfully identifies a well-disguised punji pit, a deep hole disguised with leaves and bracken that has sharp sticks on the bottom. She also identifies the presence of enemy soldiers. Rick and Cracker earn the respect of their fellow soldiers, many of whom are saved by Cracker and Rick’s work.

Rick and Cracker continue to work successfully on missions. Rick is shocked to be chosen to accompany a Special Forces prison break in Cambodia. He is told that his sergeant recommended him for the commission, and Rick is surprised and pleased to learn that U-Haul secretly respects and believes in Rick and Cracker. Cracker successfully identifies many traps through the jungle and is obedient and silent when enemy soldiers pass nearby. During the mission, when a Vietcong soldier attempts to shoot Rick, Cracker rips open the soldier's throat. Rick and Cracker receive praise from the Special Forces unit. Rick feels proud and elated.

Immediately afterward, Rick and Cracker are sent to a battle zone where Twenty is badly injured and Twenty’s dog, Tristie, is killed. Twenty is airlifted to the hospital, and Rick buries Tristie back at their camp. Rick also sits with a mortally injured man as he dies, and he feels overwhelmed and exhausted by the volatility of the war.

Rick and Cracker are sent to a village. Problematically, there are chickens; Cracker has a strong prey drive and frequently becomes distracted by small animals, especially chickens. For this reason, Rick is unsure how to interpret Cracker’s signals and wonders if she is pointing to the chickens. Meanwhile, Cracker wonders why Rick isn’t paying attention to her. She senses danger and can hear hidden humans. At the last moment, Rick intuits that Cracker’s warning is genuine. Suddenly, gunfire erupts. Rick’s slack-man, Rafael, is killed, and Rick is badly injured in his leg from flying shrapnel. In the panic, Cracker runs, and Rick loses her. As he is put under anesthesia in preparation for being airlifted out, Rick continues to call for Cracker.

Rick wakes up in the hospital. He immediately gets to work trying to locate Cracker. He mobilizes interest within the hospital and the military at large by sending letters to anyone he can think of. A photo reaches Rick of an emaciated Cracker in the jungle, and his determination to find her is renewed. He is sent home to America to complete his rehabilitation. As he leaves Vietnam, he thinks longingly and desperately of Cracker.

Meanwhile, Cracker travels through miles of jungle, along roads, and through villages searching for Rick. When she finally reaches the old military base, she finds that the withdrawing US troops have disassembled it. American soldiers approach Cracker and identify her as an Army dog from the tattoo in her ear. They bring her to a base in Saigon, where she is overjoyed to be reunited with Bruno. Cody sees Cracker as he is tending to Bruno.

Rick, who has been discharged from both the Army and the hospital, is sent home to Wisconsin. He is miserable without Cracker and continues to try to find out about her fate. A woman angrily yells at Rick that he is a “baby killer” when he emerges from the airport in his uniform (294).

Cody contacts Rick to let him know that he has found Cracker and that she is one of the few dogs who has been chosen to be returned home to America; many dogs are being euthanized or left with the South Vietnamese Army. Unfortunately, Bruno is one of them. Cody is happy for Rick, but his own devastation is apparent.

Rick, thrilled, picks Cracker up from the airport. Willie also comes to see Cracker at the airport with his family. Willie hugs her, but it is clear that Cracker is now Rick’s dog. Rick thanks Willie for raising and then surrendering Cracker and gives him his dog tags as a symbolic gesture of thanks. Cracker happily gets in the car with Rick, and they set off for their new life in Boston, where Rick has rented an apartment.