TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
If there's another teen novel about the current Iraq War — is there? — I don't know of it. That's why I was so excited when I heard the venerable Walter Dean Myers had written "Sunrise Over Fallujah," since I knew he'd handle the subject with his usual combination of raw power and sensitivity. I was not disappointed.
We're right at the start of the war, in April 2003, when Robin "Birdy" Perry, a new Civil Affairs (CA) Army recruit from Harlem, is in Kuwait with his squad waiting to make the arduous drive into Iraq. Birdy is right out of high school, and he joined the Army out of a sense of duty and a desire to have his life matter. Birdy's letters and emails to mom and his Uncle Richie (from Myers' Vietnam War saga "Fallen Angels") are interspersed with first-person recounting of the initial formation of his CA squad and their collective experiences in Iraq.
Birdy's CA squad is accompanying an Army Infantry unit, the idea being that the infantry guys will make the area safe for the CA group, which will then try to make a human connection with the Iraqi civilians. (You know that whole bit about "winning hearts and minds"? That's the deal here.) While Birdy and his mates are not supposed to encounter any violent resistance, the instability created by the initial American strike and the subsequent insurgency make every encounter a potentially deadly one.
Birdy quickly makes friends with two of his squad mates, the friendly, blues-loving Jonesy and the steely, worldly Marla (ok, he's also kind of crushing on Marla). Their banter during terrifying Humvee rides in hostile areas adds a nice sense of camaraderie and even humor to the story. There's a large cast of characters in the novel, some of which you may at times confuse; I know I did. One of the other important players in the story is the physician's assistant Captain Miller, whom Birdy comes to deeply respect. Miller tries valiantly to retain her sense of compassion and her faith in the fundamental goodness of people despite some truly awful experiences. Birdy, too, ends up seeing and even doing things that he has a hard time believing are right, despite the reassurances of his military superiors. We see firsthand his sense of confusion — both literal and moral — as life in Iraq becomes more and more frantic and chaotic.
I found "Sunrise Over Fallujah" to be a gripping, troubling coming of age story. The Iraq War is presented here in all its contrasting nobility and ugliness, and we discover just how harrowing its consequences can be on Birdy and the rest of his squad. I realize the subject matter may be a bit heavy for some folks. However, while the issues raised here are challenging, the book itself moves at a fast pace and is fairly straightforward. Birdy is so believably portrayed that you'll be frightened, disgusted, hopeful, and angry right along with him. If you're looking for a serious and timely read as we move into summer, I think "Sunrise Over Fallujah" is an excellent choice. It's an easy enough book to read, but it's one of those that will remain with you afterward. Recognizing the war-related violence depicted here — even just the weight of the subject matter — I'd recommend this novel to readers in grades 8 and up.