Monday, September 24, 2012

Back to Bataan by Jerome Charyn

This is the story of Jack, a lonely 11 year old boy.  To begin with, he is the only scholarship student at the Dutch Masters Day School, for which he must deal with some mean-spirited boys despite being top in his class.   His mother is away most of the time, working for the war effort and trying to cope with being left alone to care for things on the home front.   Poor Jack has also been having a hard time trying to cope with the loss of his father at the Battle of Bataan.  And so, Jack decides the thing for him to do is to drop out of school, enlist in the army and find General MacArthur and go back to Bataan to defeat the Japanese in the south pacific.  

Naturally, Jack doesn't get much support for this idea, but after his girlfriend breaks up with him and finds "love" with the rich, overweight Alfredo, a boy their class, life begins to feel like one abandonment after another.   Then Jack decides to take out his anger by hurting Alfredo"s family.  Afterwards, knowing it was wrong and believing he has committed a major crime, Jack takes the cowardly way out and runs away to Riverside Park rather than facing the consequences.  There, he finds acceptance, and companionship with some homeless led by the a tyrannical leader simply named The Leader.  

But are things really as wonderful as Jack thinks they are living with The Leader and his faithful companions.  Or does Jack find himself in his own personal war, where he must decide if he really is a coward or a brave enough soldier to do the right thing.  

At first, I was attracted to this short novel because it is a YA World War II story.  Next, I have a hard time resisting a novel set in my favorite place, New York City.   In the end, I found Back to Bataan to be a novel that stuck with me for a long time and I ended up with a mixed reaction to the story of Jack.   

First of all, the cover that came with the E-book led me to think it was a story about an old teen, not an 11 year old boy.  So disregard this cover.  Once I wrapped my mind around Jack's age, the story seems more for a younger reader, maybe someone on the cusp of MG/YA.  

Back to Bataan turns out to be a nice coming of age story of a boy seeking an appropriate male role model after he losses his own dad.  And this is a kid who needs guidance.   But everyone seems to fail him, except the one totally unexpected person in the story.  Which was a nice message - sometimes you find that the one who will help and guide you in life is the most unexpected person of all.  
And Charyn, who grew up in the Bronx during the war, gives a very realistic slice of life picture of NYC in the 1940s in Back to Bataan.  Now, I lived here all my live and have been in enough old soda fountain places to know the real deal and Charyn describes them to a tea or should I say an egg cream.  For the uninitiated, try going to Lexington Ave and 83rd Street and enjoy an egg cream at The Lexington Candy Shop, opened in 1925.

And the title Back to Bataan: now I watch that old 1945 John Wayne movie Back to Bataan on enough rainy afternoons with my brother to know that in 1942, after General McArthur was ordered out of Philippines, where Bataan is, he uttered the words "I shall return" and apparently young Jack took these words to heart.   But, it turns out,  he finds his own Bataan right in the heart of New York City.

If you are looking for something different to read about World War II, Jerome Charyn's novel Back to Bataan just may be the book for you.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was obtained from the publisher.

About the author:  Jerome Charyn (born May 13, 1937) is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Michael Chabon calls him “one of the most important writers in American literature.”

New York Newsday hailed Charyn as “a contemporary American Balzac,” and the Los Angeles Times described him as “absolutely unique among American writers.”

Since 1964, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture.
Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.

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  1. Alex, thanks for taking the time to read and review Jerome's WWII novel.

    1. No problem, it was my pleasure and I really enjoyed it.

  2. Excellent post Alex, glad you enjoyed the book. The clash of cultures in NYC is amazing, one could feel at home thousands of miles away.

  3. What a great review! I have been hearing a lot about this one recently and I am definitely curious about it. I like that the author got NY right. Jack sounds like a character I will like and I hope to read this one. Thanks for the information about disregarding the cover in order to keep Jack the right age in my mind. :)