Thursday, October 17, 2013

Operation Oleander by Valerie O. Patterson

Anyone living in an area where oleander grows knows that although its flower may be pretty, it is a highly poisonous plant.  And that makes it the perfect metaphor for Valerie O. Patterson's novel Operation Oleander.

Living in army base housing at Fort Spencer, Florida, and with her father deployed to Afghanistan along with the mother of her best friend, Meriwether Scott, ninth grader Jess Westmark came up with what should have been the perfect idea for staying close to her dad.  Along with Meriwether and their friend Sam Butler, son of the base commander, Jess has been faithfully setting up a table in the PX to collect school supplies to send to an orphanage for young Afghan girls.  Jess named the project Operation Oleander because she noticed that this plant, which is plentiful in Florida, was also growing right outside the orphanage.

Things went well with Operation Oleander and boxes full of school supplies had already been sent to Afghanistan, even if Meriwether and Sam were a little less enthusiastic that Jess was about the project.  Then came word one Saturday morning that there had been a bombing at an orphanage involving soldiers from Fort Spencer.  Suddenly life changes for everyone as news comes out that two soldiers had been killed and one of them was Meriwether's mother, while Jess's father had been gravely injured.

Now, Jess must deal with her worry about her dad, as well as her own guilt knowing that he and Mrs. Scott were unofficially at the orphanage delivering the school supplies collected by Operation Oleander.  And what about Meriwether, who now blames Jess for her mother's death and wants nothing more to do with her?

But Jess also wants the project to continue.  After all, wasn't it her father who taught her the meaning of Duty, Honor, Country?  For Jess, that means that now isn't the time to give up, because if she does, evil wins.

Operation Oleander is a nice book about families coping with a family member being deployed to Afghanistan and living on an army base.   I found the story to be very readable, and well written, though I was often very annoyed at Jess as a character.  Sometimes she behaved like a younger girl, other times she seemed insensitive to anyone else's feelings and her reactions felt off base.   If my dad were as gravely injured as her dad was, I think that would be the number one thing on my mind and I don't think I would have revisited the idea of Operation Oleander until sometime later.   On the other hand, I think Meriwether's reactions are spot on.

Jess was also an orphan, adopted by the Westmark's as a baby.  There are no issues about this in the book, which is nice because so often adoptee feelings of not belonging are the crux of a novel's storyline (which is a valid storyline, but would have really overloaded Operation Oleander if it had been included).  Still, I would like to have learned more about her adoption other than that her real name is Jess since she is always quick correct people who call her Jessica.  Why Jess?

I also think that if Patterson had stuck with the main storyline, this would have been a much better book, because by the end of the book, there was just too much going.  Introducing a religious protest at Mrs. Scott's funeral and Jess's reaction to it were just a little over the top for me.  Though now outlawed, I know these occurred in the past, it was just too much here.

Despite these things, I would still recommend Operation Oleander because it is a poignant story of kids coping with war and military life, and should have wide appeal and will certainly spark many conversations about whether or not the military should participate in humanitarian endeavors in a war zone.  To that end, I should say that when my Kiddo outgrew her beanie babies, I donated all the ones that had no religious significance to the army, who gave them out to the children in Afghanistan, so I guess I am on the pro-side of humanitarian endeavors by the military (for more information on that, click HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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