Friday, June 10, 2022

Guy Friday- The Secret Battle of Evan Pao

Shang, Wendy Wan-Long. The Secret Battle of Evan Pao
June 7th 2022 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

The Pao's lived in California before their father got into financial and business trouble and left the family. Evan, his mother, and sister Celeste pack up and move to Virginia, where their uncle lives. Money is a problem, but Evan makes a few friends at school, including Max, although Brady is constantly making stupid, racist remarks. His teacher, Mrs. Norwood, is in charge of the annual Battlefield Week celebration and has curated a vast collection of costumes and activities, but thinks that perhaps Evan should not be a reenactor, but should instead report on the activities as a scribe. She makes veiled comments about the "look" of the activity, but when Evan finds information at the public library from Mr. Masters about Chinese Americans who fought during the Civil War, she is open to his research and to his participation. Evan finds a stray dog while out with his uncle, and manages to persuade his mother to let him keep her, naming her Mochi. Gunshots are fired on the Pao household, and Brady is held responsible. The police (whose chief is Max's father) don't charge Brady, or even make him pay for the damage, and there's even some discussion that the Paos are somehow at fault! At school, the students are fed up with the way that Brady has been treating Evan, and subject him to the silent treatment for two weeks, a strategy they picked up reading Fitzgerald's The Great Brain! After Mochi bolts from the house, Brady helps Evan find him, and some secrets come out about the shooting. The two realize that they aren't that different. Will Evan and his family be able to come to terms with the father's desertion and make a home for themselves in Haddington?
Strengths: There are a lot of middle grade stories about moving, but Evan's culture shock sets this one apart from the ordinary. His school in California is culturally diverse, but the entire community of Haddington, Virginia is white. There's a strong thread of Confederate support, and even the teacher, Mrs. Norwood, would prefer to just not think about the real reasons for the Civil War and ignore any problems with the activities or background of the local heroes. Mrs. Norword is drawn particularly well; she's about to retire, she's put many years of work into the Battlefield Week celebration, but she's not unreasonable and realizes that things are changing. The town is portrayed that way as well; there is talk of taking down a Confederate statue, and discussion of the fact that many of these statues weren't put up until the early 1900s, perhaps as a reaction to Civil Rights activity at the time. There is a fantastic librarian who is a friend of Evan's uncle, and his tips on finding reputable sources were a great addition to the story! Max is a good friend to Evan, and most of the students are welcoming. Brady is truly terrible at first, but we find out HOW he was raised to be this terrible, and while he and Evan become friends, it isn't an easy process. Bonus points for a stray dog, Mochi, whom the family adopts. Evan deserved to have a dog and takes good care of her.
Weaknesses: The father's criminal activity and reasons for leaving the family never really made all that much sense to me, and weren't really necessary for the plot. The family's reason for leaving California could have just been a job change. Evan's story would have been compelling enough without that subplot. I also didn't believe that Evan wouldn't know the word "heirloom". 
What I really think: This is Shang's best work so far, and is a great mix of home, school, and society problems. The phrase that keeps popping into my mind is "powerfully nuanced". There are a lot of books that I read that made me cringe or sigh because a depiction is just not quite right, but Shang nails the depictions that had me holding my breath perfectly in this one. Great books to pair this with include Landis' The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody or  Leali's new The Civil War of Amos Abernathy.

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