Newbery-Medalist Richard Peck’s historical novel for middle grade readers On the Wings of Heroes
(2007) follows young Davy Bowman who describes life in his small Illinois town before the advent of World War II, chronicling the changes that occur for his family and community when the U.S. enters the war. As Davy endures rationing, collects scrap metal, and buys War Saving Stamps, he learns about the meaning of sacrifice and different kinds of heroism. On the Wings of Heroes
received a starred review from School Library Journal
Davy, the novel’s first-person narrator, explains that before the war, “There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.” He and all the kids in the neighborhood play in the streets; epic
games of hide-and-seek that even his dad, WWI veteran Earl Bowman joins in. Davy and his friend Scooter hang out on Smiley and Jewel Hiser’s porch and listen to old Jewel Hiser tell her gory stories about the Hindenburg
, and a farmer who lost a hand in a corn picker. Come Halloween, Davy loves watching Earl lie in wait to trip up tricksters with buckets of ball bearings and catch horn pinners red-handed. Davy’s older brother, Bill, is almost 19 and is away taking a Civil Aviation Administration course so he can join the military and be a pilot. Earl isn’t happy about this: he was injured and traumatized during WWI and doesn’t want the same—or worse—for Bill.
The attack on Pearl Harbor brings the distant war home. Davy says, “All the world before the war went up in far-off smoke and oil burning on water.” Davy and Scooter know that the sharp-looking Schwinn bike in the hardware store will probably be the last new bike in town “for the duration.” When it disappears just before Christmas, the boys are resigned but hopeful. Davy and his family are overjoyed when Bill returns home for the holiday, and Davy is thrilled when Earl and Bill surprise him with Bill’s old bike: souped-up and freshly repainted. Scooter is lucky enough to get the Schwinn. Davy shares that the bikes “pushed out our boundaries.”
The war brings changes to the school, too. Now there are a lot of new kids—dubbed “eight-to-five orphans” because they don’t go home for lunch—whose moms work in war manufacturing plants. Some of them, like Big Beverly and her “stooges,” Doreen and Janis, are “rough customers.” They shake kids down for their dimes on War Stamps day and disrespect the teachers. In school, the kids practice air raid drills and collect rubber for the war effort.
Rationing becomes more widespread during the summer. There is no sugar for Kool-Aid or baked treats. Mrs. Hiser starts a victory garden. Davy and Scooter hitch Radio Flyer wagons to their bikes and ride the neighborhood collecting scrap metal to earn movie tickets. They meet elderly Mr. Stonecypher, who lives in what looks like a haunted house, and Miss Eulalia Titus, a “dried up” but feisty old woman who has an antique jalopy in her barn and a house full of books. Earl joins the Civil Defense and becomes an air raid warden for their street. Davy and Scooter tag along on his patrols.
The new school year brings a new teacher, but pretty Miss Landis can’t handle Beverly. The girls steal Miss Landis’s purse and perfume, and a cop catches them shoplifting. Miss Landis departs, and tough Miss Eulalia Titus, a “walnut with a mustache,” takes her place. A rattrap in Miss Titus’s handbag quickly dissuades the girl delinquents from stealing, and Miss Titus puts an end to their War Stamps extortion ring.
Bill joins the Army Air Corps and, in the summer of 1943, completes specialized bombardier training. He comes home one last time before heading overseas. In an effort to collect every last bit of scrap metal, the town holds a Jalopy Parade. Miss Titus gives up her classic Pan American car for the war effort, and Bill gets to ride with the Jalopy Queen. Bill begins flying missions in B-17 bombers. Davy and his family listen to radio broadcasts from London and anxiously await Bill’s letters. Davy’s grandparents show up unexpectedly and move in with them. Grandpa Riddle is mild and friendly, but Grandma Riddle is huge and opinionated and takes over the house. Davy’s mom decides to get out of the house and get a job—which, it turns out, was Grandma Riddle’s goal: she didn’t want her daughter moping around waiting for the mail. The family receives a telegram that Bill has been shot down and is missing.
One evening after receiving the telegram, Davy finds Earl in the bathroom, holding a warm towel to his injured arm. Earl notices how tall Davy has grown in the last few years and almost mistakes him for Bill. Earl shares the story of how he was injured in WWI. He tells Davy that he thought because he fought in WWI, his son wouldn’t have to fight in another war. Earl begins to cry, and Davy tells him, “Be Dad.” Earl replies that he will always be dad. When Davy worries that he can’t be Bill, Earl assures him that he doesn’t have to be: Bill will come home.
The family receives a telegram that Bill was found alive and rescued by French Resistance fighters. Earl and Davy go outside and fire a shotgun into the air: making fireworks to celebrate Bill’s safe return. Davy says he empties both barrels, “one for each of my particular heroes,” his dad and Bill.