Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: The Fragile Flag by Jane Langton (1984)

The Fragile Flag is the fifth book in the Hall Family Chronicles series, following the 1981 Newbery Honor Book, The Fledgling. The President of the United States has decided to reinvent the American flag as a flashier, tackier emblem of his new vision for the United States, which involves, among other things, launching a peace missile into space to protect the country from nuclear destruction by other nations. He has challenged schoolchildren across the country to write letters describing what the American flag means to them; one winner from each state will then be invited to be the official White House flag bearer. Georgie Hall, whose entire family is disturbed by the peace missile, falls ill and misses the deadline for mailing her letter. Deciding its contents - her plea against the missile - are too important for the president not to read, she sets off for the White House on foot. At first, Georgie is accompanied only by a flag from the attic, which occasionally provides her with visions of the future, and just a few companions. As she marches from Massachusetts to Washington, however, more groups join in, and the march gains media attention. The president becomes increasingly alarmed by the size of the group and finds himself faced with the uncomfortable possibility of arguing about nuclear weapons with countless children.

This book is very much a story of the Cold War, but though it deals specifically with nuclear weapons, its message can appeal to a much broader audience. At its heart, this is a story about kids banding together to accomplish something none of them could do on their own. The most enjoyable part of the story, for me, is watching the way the kids organize themselves, each one taking on the role best suited to his or her skills and personality. The descriptions of the conditions as the kids walk through heat and rain, and sleep in fields and church halls, make the reader feel as though he or she is right there with them on the march. Especially wonderful are characters like Georgie’s best friend, Frieda, who leads the troops with a clipboard and megaphone and baby Carrington, who rides the length of the march in his little stroller. The story is farfetched, and even the author’s note suggests it might not be wise to try such a feat in real life, but the message that good people coming together can create change is no less powerful for the fact that such a thing might not actually happen.

The Fragile Flag is very different in tone from The Fledgling, and from the books that follow it, The Time Bike (2000) and The Mysterious Circus (2005). Though I have enjoyed the other Hall family books so far, this one was probably the most enjoyable to read, and the one I would be most likely to read a second time. Like most of the other books in the series, The Fragile Flag is out of print, and it’s becoming harder to find in libraries, but I think it’s a really interesting way to introduce young readers to some of the issues of the Cold War and a great read-alike for Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Definitely worth a thorough reading if you can find a copy.

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