Book Reviews: Phantoms in the Snow by Kathleen Benner Duble and Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

Phantoms in the SnowPhantoms in the Snow
Kathleen Benner Duble
Scholastic Press, February 2011
ISBN 978-0-545-19770-0
Hardcover

Being relatively well-educated, I have carried around the belief that I knew (basically) all about World War II.  We start learning about it in 6th grade and we continue to study it well into our senior year.   Why is it, then, that I had never heard of the Phantoms (Tenth Mountain Division)?  I feel cheated.

Ms. Duble’s Phantoms in the Snow tells the courageous and heart-wrenching story of a very young Texas farmer, contentedly plodding along until his world is shattered.  The untimely death of his parents land 15-year old Noah with an uncle he had never heard of.  As if the circumstances wouldn’t be challenging enough, Uncle Shelley happens to be a high-ranking soldier at Camp Hale, Colorado.  He is training an elite team of soldiers to send to the snowy mountains in Europe.  These men are the only hope of capturing Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in Italy.  In doing so, the Germans secured there will be flushed out, giving the Americans and Freedom Fighters a chance to turn the tide of the war.

This is much more than a war story.  It is about loyalty, compassion, understanding and support.  It is about working hard to save the lives of people you will never know.  This book demonstrates the strength in a team.  The story shows that no matter how crummy one life seems, there is always another worse off.  It is about believing in something bigger than yourself and doing what is right—even if it seems small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Phantoms gives the reader a glimpse of a unique group of soldiers.  Not only were these men instrumental in gaining ground during World War II, they came home to give something surprising back to their own country.  Phantoms, with their crazy passion, helped to make skiing a remarkably popular recreational activity.  They are responsible the for well-known ski resorts in Vail and Aspen.  A backcountry trail system between the two was created to honor the Tenth Mountain Division.

These men are unsung heroes.  This makes me sad.  Everyone should know about the men that trained in frigid, inhospitable conditions to quietly slip under the radar and do what no others soldiers have done.  Ms. Duble’s book is the perfect place to start.  While her characters are not necessarily based on specific Phantoms, the events are factual, the tale gripping.

Please, let’s finally give these men the recognition they deserve.  Give this book to students studying World War II, they will thank you, I promise.  Find your ski-fanatic buds and give them a copy of this book.  Who knows what these ski-bums would be into if not for the Phantoms?

To the men of the Tenth Mountain Division: thank you, I am forever grateful to you.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2013.

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Why We Took the CarWhy We Took The Car
Wolfgang Herrndorf
Translated by Tim Mohr
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-48180-9
Hardcover

Outwardly, I tout “girl power”.  I tell my nieces, and other young ladies, that girls can do anything that boys can do.  There is equality.  In truth though, I’ve always been a bit jealous of boys.  Growing up, it seemed that boys just had it easier, specifically in their friendships.  Guys appear to be so comfortable with one another, in a very real way.  Buddies may disagree, argue, and even throw down; but, at the end of the day, the rapport is still strong.  I don’t know how realistic my vision of “boys being boys” really is, but Why We Took the Car gives me hope that I was spot-on.

An unlikely friendship, a stolen jalopy and an impromptu road trip made for an exciting tale.  At a blush, Mike & Tschick could not be more different.  Tschick, poor, with no discernible adult supervision, whose young life has been filled with alcohol and petty crime, appears to enjoy being alone.  Mike, on the opposite end of the spectrum, outwardly has it all.  An outsider peering in would see a rich kid, with both parents tucked cozily beneath one very fancy roof.  Looks are often deceiving.

Mike was more than surprised when bad boy Tschick tries to befriend him, largely because Mike sports a really cool thrift-store jacket, styling a white dragon across the chest.  Feigning disinterest does not deter Tschick; he is relentless.  Without understanding exactly why, Mike stops ignoring him and a tentative foundation for solidarity begins to take shape.

Before he can fully comprehend and digest the potential repercussions; Mike amazes himself by agreeing to a “vacation” with his new pal.  Prepared with only a vague plan, a stolen car and a few bucks; the young criminals begin their adventure.

Their road trip is packed with colourful characters, mini adventures, and a gradual growth of genuine fondness between the boys.  While the encounters are exciting, intriguing and fun; they weren’t my absolute favourite part of the story.  Rather, the subtle message that sometimes, the people you choose to love are more important than the ones you are expected to love; resonated with me.  Almost as importantly, my ideal “boy friendship” was cemented as the implausible companions slowly reveal secrets truths of challenging lives.  Their new bond never breaks, it only grows stronger.

This distinctive book was an enjoyable read on a couple of levels.  The writing is powerful; when I first started this book, I found myself reading very quickly, because I felt like Mike was talking very fast.  It is always delightfully surprising when a book sets my reading pace.   A fabulous plot complete with unique characters and raw emotion make this a book that I will highly recommend, and in fact, I’m sure it will be one that I read again.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2013.