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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Book Review: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, narrated by Dominic Hoffman (audio)

This book is for middle grade readers, so it is rather short, but boy, it's so well-written, that if I didn't know it was geared towards kids, I wouldn't have known. (One other clue was at the very end, when putting this incident in the bigger context of the civil Rights Movement to come, the author explained who a few people were—Martin  Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks—who an adult author would have just assumed we knew.) And on the plus side, because it was geared towards children, it was very clear and straightforward, which I really appreciated.

During World War II, while minorities were allowed to join the armed services, they served in segregated units. And the few that didn't, were still relegated to lowly, menial, and hard-labor jobs. Most of the African-American young men signing up for the navy had no idea that meant they'd never be going to sea. The navy believed that in the confined space of a ship, any disruption could become dangerous and they didn't want to risk it. In Port Chicago, the African-Americans had to unload and load the munitions, with no training, and do it as fast as possible. In fact, often the white officers in charge would bet each other whose crew would work faster, and you can believe that if a white officer lost money because his crew of African American sailors wasn't working as hard as he thought they should, there'd be hell to pay. Additionally, there were the usual privations that came along with segregation, of shoddy quarters, eating cold leftovers, and not even being able to see movies in the local theater in their off hours.

One night there was an explosion. Of the 300+ men killed, 3/4 of them were African-American. The men from that loading unit who survived, were transferred, and told to start loading munitions again. They refused. And they were court-martialled under mutiny, which came with the death penalty. Eventually Thurgood Marshall took up the appeal. This case, now long-forgotten, was pivotal in kicking off the Civil Rights Movement and was critical in gaining unprecedented rights for African-Americans in the armed forces, even if it didn't end well for the 50 men involved.

I do think this deserves an adult full-length exploration from someone like Erik Larson or Hampton Sides, who can really dig into what happened in the explosion itself, which was not solved at the time, and therefore was glossed over in the book. (Surely we have more resources and technology today and can have more than a guess now.) But I loved this book in this version. There were an awful lot of people involved and with a cast of characters that size, and the scope of this event, it would be so easy to get very confusing. However, since this book was written for middle grade kids, it wasn't at all. It was so easy to follow, and it was nice to have the ramifications spelled out. The narrator also was great. I'd highly recommend this for any kid but also, it would be a terrific listen for the whole family, as trust me—the parents will learn just as much!

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

The print version of this book is published by Macmillan, my employer, but I listened to the audiobook, which is published by Random House. I downloaded this eaudiobook from my library via Overdrive.

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