This was originally posted on my other blog, The Children's War, but I thought I would share it here as well. It's an interesting story about what happens when rumors are spread about a German American who refuses to support the bully running for mayor.
It's only June, but the summer of 1939 does not look very promising as far as Frankie Baum, 11, is concerned. Her sister and best friend Joan, "the just-barely-older of the two," is getting to spend the summer at Aunt Dottie's farm in New Jersey, where Frankie is sure she will be having the best summer ever, while she's stuck at home in Hagerstown, MD with older sister Elizabeth, called Princess by their parents.
And ever worse, Frankie is expected to work in her father's newly purchased restaurant, a long neglected Alpine-style relict of years ago, now with only weeks to get it cleaned up and running again to become his dream of "An Eating Place of Wide Renown." Opening day is planned for July 5th. Sure enough, at the restaurant, Frankie is sent to the kitchen to work, a dirty, messy job, while Princess gets to work the cash register.
Frankie is vaguely aware of war talk among the townspeople, of anti-German feelings that are beginning to brew, but she has never really considered her family to be German, even though her father's parents immigrated from Germany. But when Hermann Baum is approached by the cigar smoking president of the Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Sullen Waterford Price, and refuses to let himself be bullied into becoming at paid member of the chamber, he makes a formidable enemy, one all too aware of his German roots.
Price is also running for mayor of Hagerstown, so when Hermann also refuses to put his election poster in his front window, Price begins looking for just the dirty information he needs to start spreading rumors that Hermann Baum is quite possibly a spy and Nazi sympathizer.
To make matters even more complicated, Hermann decides to throw his own pre-opening day Fourth of July party for friends, family and even his African American staff and their families. Hermann has always treated his kitchen staff fairly, despite living in a state where Jim Crow is in effect. That, coupled with the German flyer that has mysteriously fallen into the hands of Mr. Price, are all that is needed for a boycott of Hermann's party.
Frankie has overheard quite a bit while working in the kitchen, and decides to do some investigating of her own about what is going on. But she also finds herself doubting her father's innocence. When no one shows up at her father's party, she goes to the town's celebration to try and find out what is going on. When Hermann shows up looking for her, he collapses. And the Baum family's life is changed forever.
A Tiny Piece of Sky is a wonderful coming of age story. Frankie's character develops slowly over the course of the novel as she encounters different people and situations. The story is told in the third person by an omniscient narrator in a rather conversational style, and who seems to be right in the thick of things, more aware of what is going on in the world than Frankie is. To get some of Frankie and even Joan's mindset, there are also first person letters they write to each other, which tend to create more mystery about Hermann Baum's heritage than information.
The story takes place over June, July and August 1939. There aren't many pre-World War II home front stories for young readers, making this all that much more interesting. Stout looks at both racism and xenophobia through the lens of Frankie's summer. Frankie hasn't really paid attention to the racism and discrimination towards the African American community in Hagerstown, until she starts working in the restaurant. But the character of Mr. Stannum, the restaurant's new manager, opens her eyes when she witnesses the way he treats the black kitchen staff with such cruelty and contempt, even refusing to allow them to use the bathroom he uses.
You also don't find many books for young readers that are about the kind of treatment that German Americans experienced in the 1930s and 1940s as the possibility of war with Germany became more of a possibility. Most people don't realize they were also discriminated against. though to a far lesser extent than Japanese Americans. What makes this an interesting theme here is that Stout shows how easily people can change their attitudes towards of friends and even fathers when doubt begins to take hold. For that reason, A Tiny Piece of Sky is not just good historical fiction, but also resonates so loudly in today's world.
The other part of what makes A Tiny Piece of Sky such an interesting, realistic novel is that much of the material comes from Shawn Stout's own family and the restaurant they owned in Hagerstown, which she writes about in her Author's Note at the end of the novel. Be sure to read it when you read this excellent novel.
Teachers can find an extensive Teaching Guide for A Tiny Piece of Sky HERE
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL
|Used with permission: the original menu from Shawn Stout's grandparent's restaurant.|
Click to enlarge and check out the prices listed.