Grateful to the United States for helping to liberate France from Nazi occupation, the French people have are sending 49 boxcars* on what is called the Merci Train, all filled with gifts for the United States. And one of those boxcars is going to travel through and briefly stop at Glory Bea's small town of Gladiola, Texas. Slowly, as the town begins to prepare a celebration for the train's arrival, Glory Bea allows herself to become more and more convinced that her dad will be on that boxcar stopping on Valentines Day, which also happens to be her parent's wedding anniversary. She's sure just wants to surprise her and her mom. After all, why else would the Merci Train stop in Gladiola, and wouldn't it be just like her dad to plan a big surprise like that? she thinks.
There's only one problem - now her dad's best Army buddy, Randall Horton, has arrived in town to visit with the Bennett family and Glory Bea is not happy about the fact that he is spending a lot of time with her mother, laughing, going out, and just enjoying each other's company. Angry and resentful, it seems the more Glory Bea tries to make his visit unpleasant, the longer Randall stays.
Glory Bea keeps her idea about her dad's return to herself, only telling her best friend Ruby Jane about it. Meanwhile, she begins to prepare for his homecoming, but now it looks like Randall is planning to settle down in Gladiola. Well, once her dad is home, her mother will lose all interest in Randall.
But when the Merci Train finally arrives in Gladiola, Glory Bea's miracle is definitely not what she expected.
Blue Skies is an interesting work of historical fiction that really shows the extent to which WWII impacted the lives of those who lived through it long after the fighting ended and that finally by 1949, people were beginning to finally move on with their lives. And while I loved the idea of bringing the Merci Train into the story, I did have a hard time with Glory Bea's holding on to the idea her dad was still alive but just hadn't come home yet for such a long time.
That being said, I still really liked this novel. There's so much going on beside Glory Bea's obsession. Her grandmother is a matchmaker, and she's trying to follow in her footsteps matching Ruby Jane and neighbor Ben Truman, and totally missing Ben's real crush.
An important side story in the book is that of Ben's father who returned from the war a changed man, suffering from PTSD. When Randell Horton arrives in town, and goes to visit Mr. Truman, just being able to talk about the war with someone who was there finally begins his healing, but there's no doubt he has a long road ahead of him.
One of the things I really enjoy when reading historical fiction are the little everyday things that are included, giving the reader a real sense of what life was life for kids back then. For example, the way movies play such a big part in the lives of Glory Bea and Ruby Jane, and the tradition of going to the soda fountain for Dr. Pepper floats afterwards.
Bustard has also really captured the patriotic spirit of places like Gladiola after the war. It's a small, friendly community where everyone knows and look out for each other. This is very evident in the parade that is being planned for the Merci Train's stop there or when Glory Bea and Ben hop on a train without a ticket.
I have to admit that at first I found Glory Bea an annoying, self-centered character, but as I read on I began to feel more empathy for her. I can understand the difficulty of losing a parent that you feel so attached to as a child. It happened to me, and it happened to my Kiddo, and life is hard for a long time. Coming to terms with loss can be a hard, sad journey, but Bustard allows Glory Bea to have her journey her way.
If you have read or are planning to read Blue Skies, you can find a list of interesting resources and links, including an Educator's Guide, HERE. There's even a playlist of songs from that time period (one of my favorite things is an author's playlist for historical fiction).
If you are looking for a compelling middle grade book about WWII and its aftermath, you can't go wrong with Blue Skies.
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was gratefully received from the publisher, Simon & Schuster
* There were 49 Merci boxcars in all - one for each state and a 49th for the District of Columbia and Hawaii to share. The Merci train, also called the French Gratitude Train, was sent as a thank you not only for America's part in the liberation of France, but also for the more than 700 boxcars of much needed supplies on The American Friendship Train sent to France in 1947.