Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody by Matthew Landis

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody Review Middle Grade Historical Fiction

The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody
By Matthew Landis

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

Oliver is a seventh grader in Mr. Carrow’s Social Studies class who is obsessed with the Civil War. He is a reenactor with the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers and practices with his regiment every Saturday. No other student knows as much about Civil War battles as Ollie does. Since all he wants to talk about relates to the Civil War, Oliver is a bit awkward and does not have many friends.

Ella is a smart girl in  Mr. Carrow’s class with a talent for video editing. Unfortunately, she is preoccupied with trying to get the attention of her affluent, workaholic parents by tanking all of her classes and dressing like she just climbed out of a dumpster. She is one failing grade away from repeating the seventh grade.

8th grade Social Studies teacher Mr. Carrow assigns Oliver and Ella to work together on a Civil War research assignment. Aspiring writer and fellow seventh grader Kevin joins them so he can earn credit in his English class. Oliver expects to do a project on one of the Union generals. Instead, the group is assigned Private Raymond Stone, who died not as a hero in battle, but as a victim of dysentery before he ever saw the battlefield. Ollie is devastated.

Oliver, Ella, and Kevin visit the local historical society and read letters and accounts of what the Civil War was really like. Over the course of their research, the three learn about the condition of camps, how homes were turned into hospitals, and what the Quaker Peace Testimony meant for many families. They also find out what it means to have a friend and be a friend, and maybe more in the case of Oliver and Ella, but not before they struggle to define what makes someone important. They inevitably come to the conclusion that the most memorable story is not the only one worth remembering.

Author Matt Landis is a middle school social studies teacher who obviously draws on much personal experience. His description makes the reader care about his quirky but realistic characters, and he moves the story along without dwelling too long on any one event. This story is about the awkwardness of new relationships and navigating boy/girl relationships as much as it is about researching history, and I think many students will relate to the thoughts and feelings of a character or two.

This story is also very timely. Mr. Carrow says, “Sometimes people make history what they want it to be instead of what it actually was” (quoting from an uncorrected text). His statement has a double meaning. He is talking about how the students’ perceptions are not necessarily how things really are, but he is also talking about how the South was so angry after the Confederacy lost the Civil War that they erected monuments to remember their “war heroes” even after they were declared murderers and traitors to the United States. While this sentiment may seem like a foregone conclusion to people in the North, it is not here in the South. This book could elicit some meaningful discussion where many of those men are still honored with monuments and statues.

I highly recommend this book for a middle school library.

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