Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Slap Your Sides by M E Kerr

Quakers have always been pacifists and so whenever war comes, they have invoked their religious belief as conscientious objectors. Most people see this unwillingness to fight as cowardice rather than religious conviction. During World War II, conscientious objectors were quite ostracized, as they have been in all wars that they refuse to participate in.

Slap Your Sides is about what happens to a family when one of their sons, Bud, refuses to go to war when he is drafted because of his Quaker beliefs. The story is told from the point of view of thirteen year old Jubal Shoemaker, faced with the idea that the war could continue until he old enough to be drafted. Jubal goes through some real soul-searching before he decides he will follow in his brother’s footsteps. Middle brother Tommy isn’t nearly as interested in the war or his “conchie” brother as he is in “scoring” with girls.

The family must deal with harassment and snubbing by former friends and neighbors as well as constant graffiti on the windows of the family department store, and even vilification on a local radio program hosted by their neighbor, Radio Dan, who happens to have two sons service overseas.

Though he looks up to his brother and admires Bud’s resolve to follow his beliefs, Jubal also wants to be liked by the people around him. Daria, Radio Dan’s daughter, is forbidden to have anything to do with Jubal and his family, but a closeness begins to grow between them anyway. Daria loves to ride horses and Jubal invites her over to the farm where he works in the stable on the weekend to ride with him. Daria cannot understand Bud and Jubal’s pacifist position on war, but she slowly begins to change her opinions, or rather form her own, when letters from her start brother to arrive, questioning the wisdom of war. But it takes the death of one of her brothers for Daria to really see the pointlessness of war and to begin to understand Jubal’s position. At the same time, Jubal’s beliefs are called into play when he must make a snap decision about what he perceives to be an attack on Daria by a deranged, escaped conscientious objector.

Running parallel to Jubal’s story is that of Bud, though it is not presented directly, but through other devices, such as letters and phone calls. Bud is given the conscientious objector classification, 4-E, by the army and sent to Colorado to work as unpaid labor in a Civilian Public Service camp. There, he and his fellow COs are harassed, barred from entering stores, restaurants and movie theaters, their packages arrive empty and they threatened with bodily harm.

From Colorado, Bud is transferred to the Shenandoah State Asylum for the Insane. While there, he is seriously beaten up for of his “conchie” beliefs and one of the inmates, a very large Indian patient named Sky Hawk, is blamed. In reality, Bid and Sky Hawk had hitched a ride home from the movies and the men in the pickup that stopped had given Bud the beating, poured beer over Sky Hawk’s jacket and driven off. Though seriously injured, Bud slowly recovered. Afterwards, he participated in a starvation experiment. Men were intentionally starved to see how malnourished people could be re-nourished. All these things, and others, were considered to be legitimate forms of alternate service by the Army.

The consequences of one person’s decision to not fight are well illustrated in this novel. It is a decision that has a profound effect on the lives of everyone in the Shoemaker household. It is a part of the war we seldom see presented in novels. Kerr has done this very well in this novel, and ends Slap Your Sides with the same irony that is her trademark. After all, as Radio Dan reminds us, “Oh, listeners, the world’s filled with irony.” (pg 184)

Kerr has certainly done her homework on conscientious objectors during World War II.  Feelings ran high during the war and sometimes people dressed their worst behavior up in patriotism that then run amuck. Often during the war, as is the case here, patriotism was not much better than nationalism in terms of its treatment of people who were considered inferior, for example, conscientious objectors, African-Americans or Japanese-Americans. Another bit of irony Kerr brings out.

Slap Your Sides is an excellent book in many ways and I would highly recommend it. It opens up a lot of questions about how we define what is right and wrong that can lead to interesting discussions either in school or at home. It may be about war, but some of the issues tackled will always resonate with kids.

This book is recommended for readers 9-12.
This book was borrowed from the 67th Branch of the NYPL.

Slap Your Sides received the following well deserved honors
2002 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age Listee
2002 Oklahoma Library Association Young Adult Book Award Nominee
2002 Booklist One of ten best books about religion

A reading guide for Slap Your Sides is available at Harper Collins

More information about pacifists in World War II can be found at PBS The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight
There is an interesting article in the Friends Journal about Quakers and conscientious objectors in World War II.
The National Peace Museum of Conscientious Objection and Anti-War Activism is online and has information on conscientious objection from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War.


  1. Oh, I'm glad you reviewed this. I have had it on my mental list for while. Think I will just have to buy the book!

    Pacifism during WWII (and any time) is a subject close to my heart.

  2. It is always interesting to read about pacifists during a war. They were so disliked and treated so poorly. I am glad you are inspired to read this. I found it both informative and emotional.

  3. It's quite astounding how human beings can justify their cruel behavior towards each other. Persecuting a person for his choices! A government agency knowingly starving people in the name of scientific discovery! It truly is all about how we define what is right and what is's also about imposing our morality on others. I haven't read anything by Kerr...this will be my first book. Thanks for the review!

  4. Alex, this post has been featured on my first Inspired Book Buy blog post.

  5. Alex, I read Kathy's post about YOUR post and wanted to come read your review. The book sounds so interesting! I love stories about various experiences during wartime.
    When I joined the Coast Guard, one of the questions they ask you in your in-take interview, just before you sign on the dotted line, is if you are a conscientious objector. Covering all the bases, I guess.

    I'll go right now and see if my library has it.

  6. Kathy, I am flattered that you felt so strongly about the subject of Slap Your Sides that you featured it on your blog and that this inspired mouseprints too.

    mouseprints, I hope your library has the book. It in an interesting view and M E Kerr is a very thought provoking writer.

  7. Sound like a really good read..Like it.