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Mama and I were Southerners, but not Rebels.  We were for the Union, but not the Yankees.  You have to be from Maryland to understand it.  Mrs. Gruber was a Rebel, but we were invited because she and Mama had always been friends.  We were all still neighbors who’d known each other forever, and nobody knew yet how to draw the lines. 

(from Amelia’s War, page 1)

When I discovered that Amelia’s War took place in Hagerstown, Maryland, during the Civil War I knew I had to read it.  First, I’ve lived in Maryland since 2001 but have yet to really explore the state’s rich Civil War history.  Second, I’ve actually been to Hagerstown, and even though I saw signs for the Antietam battlefield, I was clueless about the town’s history.  Also, since I don’t know a whole lot about the Civil War, I’ve found that Ann Rinaldi’s historical fiction for young readers provides enough of a historical background without overwhelming me with information about the various battles.

Amelia’s War opens in August 1861 and is told from the first person point of view of 11-year-old Amelia Grafton, whose father is the town treasurer and runs a general store in town and whose grandmother works with the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia.  After a young man entering the Confederate Army is shot to death in nearby Williamsport as he fled the farewell tea party attended by Amelia and her mother, Amelia tells what she saw to the owner of the Hagerstown Mail, and he writes a front-page editorial that points an angry finger at the Yankees.  The owner of the newspaper — who also is the father of Amelia’s close friend, Josh — is sent to prison because of his “Southern leanings,” which ultimately lead to the destruction of his printing press and his flight from town.  The whole incident makes Amelia feel awful.  She wanted to take a stand and do something for the war effort, but she didn’t want to leave Josh alone in the newspaper office fending for himself without a parent around to care for him.

Hagerstown is in a state of confusion.  While Maryland is officially part of the Union, its residents are divided on the matter, and some, like the Graftons, support the Union but realize that it’s not a black-and-white issue.  Amelia’s mother, for instance, will feed and bandage any soldier who needs help, whether Union or Confederate, but things get complicated when General Lee and his Rebel troops sweep into town, forcing Amelia’s father into hiding due to his Union sympathies, getting her younger brother, Sky, excited about the soldiers and the war, and angering her older brother, Wes, into action.

As the years of the war pass, Amelia sees the people around her taking part in the war effort, but she sits on the sidelines.  She has lots of opinions about the war and wants them to be valued even if she is a girl, but she refuses to take part in any war-related activity after what happened to Josh’s father and the role she played in the situation.  She sees Wes go to war, Josh print news stories to bring the truth to the people, her mother help the wounded, and Wes’s girlfriend, Jinny, outwardly oppose the presence of Lee’s troops in Hagerstown.  Amelia begins to wonder when it will become her war.

“You’re a woman, Jinny.  Nobody expects it of you.”

“I expect it of myself.  The war has hurt us bad.  My pa has to hide up in the mountain.  I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, I have to do something.  Sooner or later, we all have to.”  She stared at me with an unblinking gaze.

I flushed.  “I suppose you’re saying that on my account.  Because I haven’t made it my war.”

“Just saying it.  No cause to take on.  It isn’t your time yet, that’s all.”

“And what if I never think it’s my time?  What then?”

“It will be,” she said softly.  “When the time comes, you’ll know it.”  (page 133)

Rinaldi had me hooked from the first page.  She tends to write strong female characters who are flawed but have the right intentions, and that describes Amelia perfectly.  She’s got spunk, but she’s a little insecure about her place in the war.  And Rinaldi brings the Civil War to life, showing how chaotic it was to not know from one day to the next whether the town was under the control of the Union or the Confederacy and how neighbors turned on one another due to the politics of the war.  It’s hard for Amelia to ignore the war when the soldiers come marching in and gunfire and hand-to-hand combat occur in the town square; the war is literally on her doorstep.

Amelia’s War packs a lot of information into less than 300 pages, but Rinaldi is great when it comes to pacing the plot, generating tension, and doling out information without overwhelming readers — which is helpful because the book is geared toward 10- to 14-year-olds, but even adults like me who don’t know a lot about the war will be entertained and informed.  Rinaldi covers everything from the ransom of Hagerstown in July 1864, the plight of former slaves, how young women fought as soldiers, the harsh conditions endured by the worn-down soldiers, and women’s rights to the difficulty of staying neutral when war rages all around you and how important it is to stick by your friends even when you don’t see eye to eye on certain things like war.  An author’s note at the end of the book helps readers separate the fact from the fiction.

The Civil War not only divided the country, but it also divided the people, pitting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend.  It affected both men and women, young and old.  Amelia’s War emphasizes that young people can make a big difference and that history is full of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.  Rinaldi takes these lessons and transforms them into a thought-provoking story that exemplifies middle-grade historical fiction at its finest.  Best of all, Rinaldi knows that younger readers want stories with some substance and that they can handle tough subjects like war, and she crafts them in a way that appeals to readers of all ages.

Check out my reviews of other books by Ann Rinaldi:

Juliet’s Moon

Disclosure: I borrowed Amelia’s War from my local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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