In 1942, the Nazis, the greatest fighting force mankind has ever seen, sweep through Europe and North Africa, seeking no less than world domination. But this time, women face them alongside men.
Rio Richlin is 17 years old, just too young to join the fight. But a gold star is sewn on the service flag of her parents’ home, signifying the ultimate sacrifice. And Rio wants to avenge her sister’s death. Her best friend wants to escape her home, and convinces her to enlist. Frangie Marr is a young black woman from a family on the edge of losing their home. She dreams of being a doctor, a tough sell in segregated America. She joins up as a medic, and fights a war within a war. Rainy Schulterman is a Jew in New York. She volunteers, hoping to enter the intelligence service, hoping to find out why her family no longer hears from relatives in Europe, hoping to use her brilliant mind to make Hitler suffer. None believe they will see the front lines.
But nothing ever goes as planned. Or, in the language of the Army, the girls learn quickly, it is FUBAR.
The book is not a short one. Well over 500 pages in length, it takes the reader through the background, decision to enlist, and the initial training for each girl, before even discussing the war, which happens about halfway through. But the story does not drag. I was captivated from the first page onward.
I LOVE that Michael Grant wrote each girl equally. They are each the heroine of their own story, their narratives intertwining, and each strengthens as they come to know and lean on each other. Throughout the novel, they grow and change as each faces the reality of war. Rio thinks she can avenge her sister as a sharpshooter, until she has her sights trained on an actual soldier. Frangie learns to trust her hands, when her brain betrays her as the guns fire all around. And Rainy learns that all her plotting and planning is carried out by real people, it is not just lines on a map.
Grant’s description of the battles and beach landing ring incredibly true, and illustrate his tireless research. (He includes an extensive bibliography following the story.) Capsizing troop transports, bullets spraying sand, bodies falling as they reach the shore. Grenades exploding in foxholes, loss of limbs and life; blood and horror and thirst and cold and noise and silence.
The language and attitudes are definitely of the time. Rampant racism, sexism and anti-semitism are prevalent in the story, and provide a tough social commentary. It is shocking and thought-provoking, and highlights the battles fought within their own units.
I have only one minor criticism of the story. I found the scattered narration from the mysterious young woman unnecessary and gimmicky. She is only present about 3 times, and yet it is written that she narrates the entire story of these girls’ lives as if she is present throughout. The whole “Gentle Reader” thing annoyed me and was unnecessary to the story.
That picky issue aside, book one in the Soldier Girl series is an important and unusual YA story, and a fantastic way for teens to learn a little about that dark time in our history.
After perusing Grant’s bibliography, if you want even more information about the time and battles (and you will want to learn more, after reading this book!), especially at Kasserine Pass, read Samuel Fuller’s incredible and autobiographical The Big Red One. There are shades of the iconic WWII novel in Front Lines, with the bonds of sisterhood forged through training and in war.
Front Lines was published January 26th 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.