Saturday, February 16, 2019

Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis

The other day, I was going taking a little walk down memory lane, scrolling through my other blog, The Children's War, and remembering some of the wonderful books I've read for it. Way back in August 2010, I wrote about one of my favorite books, Mare's War, and decided to reread it and share it here.

It begins with a road trip. Sisters Octavia, 15, and Tali, 17, are sure that their summer vacation is absolutely ruined when they are told that they will be accompanying their grandmother to a family reunion. But Ms. Marey Lee Boylen, or Mare as she prefers to be called, is not your average granny: "She wears flippy auburn wigs, stiletto shoes and padded push-up bras." (pg1) She also drives a sporty red car, wears long fake nails and smokes cigarettes. So it only stands to reason that Mare has a story to tell that is also not average.

Before they even leave the driveway, Octavia and Tali are bored and unhappy, bickering with each other and complaining about everything, especially Mare's smoking. So a deal is struck - Mare will keep her cigarettes in her purse and Tali will keep her headphones out of her ears when Mare is speaking.

As they drive along, Mare begins to tell the unhappy girls about growing up black in Bay Slough, Alabama on a farm purchased by her now deceased father, and about her mother and younger sister Josephine (Feen), and their mother's lecherous boyfriend Toby. Mare had always cared for Feen, but after a problem with Toby, Feen is sent to live with an aunt in Philadelphia. Mare realizes the only thing left for her to do is a job cleaning house for a white woman. But it is also 1944 and the country is still at war, so the almost 17-year-old Mare runs away and enlists in the WACS, or Women's Army Corps, lying about her age to get in because you must be 21 to join up. There she meets a variety of young women, forming friendships that will last a lifetime, especially with a fellow WAC named Peaches Carter.

After basic training, the women ship out, first for Birmingham, England and later for Paris, France. They are part of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only group of African American women to serve overseas, and whose job it is to sort through warehouses full of letters and packages so that they can be delivered to soldiers at the front.

Mare's War is a journey of growth, revelation and understanding on many levels. The chapters alternate between Now, told by Octavia, and Then, told by Mare, with the past and present narrations separated by a postcard home from one of the girls about how the trip is going, and providing a smooth transition from one time frame to the other. By the end of the novel, all three women are not in the same place they started from and even the family reunions turns out to be something unexpected. And while Mare's story is one of family, loyalty, strength and close friendships, Davis doesn't sugarcoat her novel, but deals with themes such as racism and sexism, which was especially virulent towards black women in the army during WWII.

I loved this novel when I read it back in 2010 and again in 2019. The second reading brought out things I didn't remember, and while Mare's is the central story, I definitely appreciated the girls more this time around and I thought the characterizations of Mare, Tali, and Octavia were absolutely spot on. One of the true marks of good historical fiction is the way the author used her real material, and Davis do a great job of seamlessly weaving in some of the actual experiences of the 6888th with Mare's personal history. She also brought to light another part of African American Women's history too long ignored.

I couldn't recommend this book highly enough in 2010, and stand by that recommendation today.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased by me as a gift to my niece.

For some interesting information about the road trip take by Mare and her granddaughters, see

The 6888th Central Battalion was finally honored for their service during World War II in March 2009. Beth A. Warrington has written an informative article about the monument dedicated to these brave women called "No Mail, Low Morale" The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.

"Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity E. Adams and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell,...inspect the first contingent of Negro members of the Womens's Army Corps assigned to overseas service." 6888th Central Postal Directory Bn. February 15, 1945. Holt 111-SC-20079.

Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan d'Arc at the marketplace where she was burned at the state. May 27, 1945 Pfc. Stedman. 111-SC-42644.

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