Monday, November 29, 2010

The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer

Title:  The Mailbox
Author:  Audrey Shafer
Publisher:  Yearling
Pages:  192
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Gabe is an 11 year old boy who has seen a lot in his short life.  After his mother died when he was two, he was bounced around from foster home to foster home until his Uncle Vernon, a reclusive Viet Nam veteran, was located when he was nine.  Two years later, Gabe comes home from his first day of sixth grade to find his uncle dead.  Wracked with grief and unsure what to do, Gabe does not report the death, and leaves for school the next day as if nothing has happened.  When he returns home at the end of the day, his uncle's body is gone, and there is a mysterious note in the mailbox that says, "I have a secret".  Thus starts a mailbox correspondence between Gabe and the mysterious stranger-and a journey towards finding the one person who needs him as much as he needs them.

I picked up this book on an impulse from the book fair at school, and I am so glad that something told me to check it out.  The story is compelling, and the characters are complex and flawed in a way that just begs discussion.  Uncle Vernon's misanthropic veteran is a gruff old man with many, many scars.  It is fair to say that most of him never came out of the jungle.  Gabe is a confused, frightened boy with scars of his own.  All of the more minor characters are completely believable and well-written. 

This is the first middle grade novel that I have seen that deals with any aspect of the war in Viet Nam, and it does so with a real sense of compassion for the veterans who fought there, while at the same time highlighting how war damages those who participate in it.  Not one of the veterans who is featured in the book has been able to entirely leave the experience behind them-and Uncle Vernon and the mysterious stranger are perhaps more damaged than most.  The book also deals with the foster care system and the effects on children who are bounced around from home to home.  Gabe himself had been through a sort of war before he came to his uncle, and he was also scarred by the experience.  It explains why he told no one about his uncle's death-he did not want to go back to not ever being secure in where he would lay his head that night.   

There is some raw language (though no actual swear words) and mature subject matter in this novel, but the readability is pretty low, so I'd say this book would be good for mature 5th and 6th graders, average middle schoolers, and high schoolers who need high-interest, low readability.

Teacher Resources:

The Mailbox Classroom Guide

William Allen White Book Awards Discussion Guides

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