Saturday, March 03, 2007


by Cynthia Kadohata
Atheneum, February 2007
Review copy purchased at Liberty Books

Cracker is completely devoted to his boy, Willie. Unfortunately, Willie's dad lost his job and the family has to move into an apartment building that does not allow pets. Willie has one month to find a new home for Cracker. Time is running out when Willie sees the notice that German Shepherds are wanted by the Army for use in the Vietnam War.

Because the book is told from the dual perspectives of Cracker and the humans in his life, we get a sense of how hard this separation is for both Cracker and Willie. Besides being devoted, Cracker is smart, independent, and quite willful. His new handler, Rick, joined the army at 17 planning to "whip the world" and escape running the family hardware store. Rick is inexperienced and naive, gets on the wrong side of the sarge, and winds up with Cracker as his dog.

It takes some time and not a few forbidden hot dog treats, but Rick and Cracker become a team.

The book takes the reader through the process of training a military dog to sniff out booby traps and snipers, and the reader accompanies Rick and Cracker on missions. Dogs die, friends die, legs are blown off, and Rick suffers mental anguish about all he sees and experiences.

In the end, though, the book is about the incredible bond of loyalty between a man and his dog.

In the author's note, Kadohata explains that 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam. "Dogs were considered military equipment; at the war's end they were considered surplus military equipment." These dogs saved approximately 10,000 human lives. 1,000 dogs died in Vietnam. 200 dogs were reassigned to other U.S. military bases. It is unknown what became of the rest. Kadohata interviewed dog handlers who served in the Vietnam War, and several photos in the back of the book show some of the men and their dogs.

I asked Amazing 5th Grade Girl Reader (AGR) to read CRACKER! and let me know what she thought of it. AGR has read KIRA, KIRA and WEEDFLOWER, so she is in a position to place CRACKER in the context of Kadohata's other books.

CRACKER was AGR's least favorite of Kadohata's books. She thought it was slower, and not as exciting. The war part was intense, but confusing. AGR said she would have appreciated a glossary of place names, weapons, vehicles, and military jargon, such as "Charlie" for Viet Cong. She now has some idea of what the Vietnam War was about -- something she never knew before. She enjoyed reading from the point of view of the dog and thinking about how dogs might interpret our words.

Another one of my 5th graders is currently reading CRACKER!. He is a military history buff, so stay tuned for his quite different take on the book.

Links: Author's website (has an excerpt from the first chapter)

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