I was in college taking a Propaganda course when I read Todd Strasser's The Wave. It's a story about how readily people will give up their individual rights and personal freedom to become part of a dominating peer group in a classroom experiment designed to show students how Germans were persuaded to support Nazism. It was a simplified experiment, but the part that Strasser got right was that we are all responsible for our own actions and to question a leader and never follow him blindly. Now, we have The Good War in which Strasser gives readers a somewhat updated version of The Wave, but takes it to a virtual battlefield.
Ironville Middle School has had to cancel football for lack of funds and taking advantage of that, seventh grader Caleb Arnett had worked with math teacher Ms. B on a grant that provided state of the art gaming computers to the school. Now, for the first time, there would be an eSports club, despite the Principal's skepticism about gaming. Eight students show up for the inaugural meeting, including loner Zach Cook and bully Crosby Fugard, and soon a game is chosen and teams are formed.
The game, The Good War or TGW for short, mimics the Allied and Axis forces in World War II. Emma Lopez is chosen to be team captain for the Allies, and has Caleb, Zach and Nathan on her team, while Gavin Morgenstern is the Axis captain with Crosby, Tyler and Mackenzie on his side. The eSports Club meets once a week after school, and it doesn't take long for the players to really get into it. Soon, the Axis players are all wearing Nazi type clothing and speaking in fake German accents. Sadly, most of the students don't really have an understanding of World War II and what happened. For them, it's just a video game.
Things really get out of hand when there is a malware attack during a club meeting that features Nazi symbols, leading to a fight between two opposing players. After all Caleb's hard work to get these computers, this the end of eSports Club?
The Good War is told in the third person alternating voices of Caleb, Zach, Emma, Nathan and Crosby. Each of these students have issues and it is interesting to see how they evolve over the course of 10 weeks. Caleb is overly extended thanks to his hovering parents who want him to excel in everything; loner Zach is a fidgety boy with multiple tics, but is a great skateboarder and gamer, while quiet Emma lives in her older sisters shadow, unable to stand up for herself. Crosby, who mother has cancer and is going through chemo, is the most vulnerable of the group. He plays TGW online with a white supremacist who is slowly radicalizing him.
Through the members of the eSports Club, Strasser explores themes of bigotry, prejudice, the misuse of social media, racism, and bullying. While it is a little hard to believe that a middle school would allow students to play a game like The Good War, which is rated Mature, I could still suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story. And what about Ms. B's lack of leadership and control over the eSports Club? In my teaching life, I have met a few Ms. Bs, which is sad to say.
I wrote a dissertation on how novels for girls were used to indoctrinate them into NSDAP thinking, so naturally, I found The Good War and The Wave to be interesting books that tackle the theme of indoctrination and belonging. There was a reason Hitler courted German youth but you might be surprised to learn that German parents weren't quite as supportive as we have been lead to believe. Which made me wonder, where were all the parents of the kids in the eSports club?
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley
It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle