Review: The Good War
The Good War
by Todd Strasser
Delacorte Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)
Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Stacy Nockowitz
Buy at Bookshop.org
In 1981, Todd Strasser wrote The Wave, based on the true story of high school history teacher Ben Ross and the class experiment he carried out in 1969. By creating a stringent behavioral “system” in his classroom, Ross showed his students how easily people could be swept up in a movement like Nazism. Now, forty years later, Strasser has written an updated, middle school version of The Wave titled The Good War.
Instead of a high school history class, The Good War takes place in the newly formed eSports club of a middle school. The students in the club represent a wide swath of middle school types: the goody-goody, the high achiever, the hulking athlete, the “weird” loner, the bully, the mean girls, and so on. The kids come together after school to play a video game called The Good War, a World War II simulation game that pits the Allied powers against the Axis powers. The team with the bully and the mean girls on it becomes so caught up in playing as the Axis powers that they begin to wear Nazi-style shirts, speak in German accents, and casually toss around the Heil Hitler salute. One boy who obsessively plays video games at home meets a white supremacist online who begins to influence the way he thinks and acts. In other words, without realizing what’s happening to them, the students give in to groupthink, despite the way their behavior is damaging both their school and their own lives.
The Good War is a thought-provoking novel with contemporary references that will appeal to today’s middle school readers. Strasser does a fine job of creating nuanced characters who, despite their cliched appearances, actually have some depth. The boy who is influenced by the white supremacist online is more than a mere bully; he’s a kid with a lousy home life who is searching for a father figure. The high achiever realizes that his need to impress his teachers has caused him to unwittingly hurt others. Strasser keeps the story moving with short sections of text jumping from one kid’s perspective to another. The premise of the book is a bit forced, as it’s highly unlikely that a teacher would allow middle school students to play a violent, rated-M video game in a school club. Still, The Good War succeeds in showing middle grade readers how unintentionally vulnerable they can be.
Even though The Good War centers around a World War II video game and that one boy falls under the influence of a white supremacist, the book does not contain much in the way of Jewish content. It doesn’t even seem like the students in the story know any Jewish people. There are a few references to Nazi atrocities, but antisemitism is not front and center in this book. So, despite its literary merit, The Good War should not be considered for the Sydney Taylor Award.
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