That Mad Game


Edited by J.L. Powers

A 2013 Skipping Stones Honor Book
That Mad Game: Growing up in a Warzone
That Mad Game: Growing up in a Warzone
A 2012 Notable Books for a Global Society Book

With essays from Qais Akbar Omar, Aria Minu-Sepehr, Alia Yunis, Rene Colato Lainez, Jerry Mathes, Nikolina Kulidzan, Philip Cole Manor, Peauladd Huy, Marnie Mueller, David Griffith, David Yost, and many many more.

What’s it like to grow up during war? To be a victim of violence or exiled from your homeland, culture, family, and even your own memories?

When America’s talking heads talk about war, children and teenagers are often the forgotten part of the story. Yet who can forget images of the Vietnam “baby lift,” when Amer-Asian children were flown out of Vietnam to be adopted by Americans? Who can forget the horror of learning that Iranian children were sent on suicide missions to clear landmines? Who wasn’t captivated by stories of the “lost boys” of Sudan, traveling thousands of miles alone through the desert, seeking shelter and safety? From the cartel-terrorized streets of Juárez to the bombed-out cities of Bosnia to Afghanistan under the Taliban, from Nazi-occupied Holland to the middle-class American home of a Vietnam vet, this collection of personal and narrative essays explores both the universal and particular experiences of children and teenagers who came of age during a time of war.

“Seventeen wrenching accounts, most previously unpublished and either personal or based on interviews, from witnesses who as children or teenagers were caught up in wars or internecine violence. From Marnie Mueller, born of non-Japanese parents in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, to three pseudonymous young refugees belonging to the savagely persecuted Chin minority who fled Burma in the mid-2000s, the subjects of these essays range widely in age and background. They have in common inner wounds that persist long after outer ones have healed or, at least, scarred over. Except for Fito Avitia, a resident of Juárez, Mexico, determined to stay put despite his city’s wild tides of crime and violence, displacement runs as a common thread through these narratives. It takes the form of either physical exile or, in the case of Phillip Cole Manor, who writes of his tour in Vietnam and Jerry Mathes’ portrait of his father, who came back from that war with PTSD, profound damage to senses of place and self. Explicit descriptions of atrocities make disturbing reading in some entries, though all are, in the end, uplifting tales of survival that offer a mix of (as the editor puts it) “loss, anger, fear, heartbreak and forgiveness.” A romantic encounter between a Serb and a Croat, and a Kabul youth’s memories of repeated encounters with a smitten “Talib in Love” even add lighter notes. War’s most vulnerable victims, stepping up to have their say.”  Kirkus Reviews 

“[R]eaders will be rewarded by [this] compelling and often uplifting anthology … That Mad Game surprises with its variety. From Taliban-controlled Kabul to a Japanese internment camp in northern California, from a teen girl’s “soundtrack of war” in Beirut to a young man’s long walk across much of Africa, the startling stories make for rough going at times. But the humor, beauty, and humanity shining through the darkness are what make this collection a must-have for all libraries serving high school students.” School Library Journal

“While Powers offers no definitive ideological position in the meaning of these essays, it is hard to escape the feeling that more than pacifism, this book is a desperate plea for justice. Whether examining the sadness and loss of a young U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War, or the determination of a family caught in the current Mexican Drug War, the stories bring into sharp relief the gulf between dry statements of public policy and the sticky realities of what it is to be a pawn in great geopolitical games. This is not a call to arms so much as a call to understanding.” Rain Taxi

” Editor J.L. Powers has done an amazing job of collecting an array of individual narratives to dive into. Some will resonate more than others, but collectively they provide a powerful example of the lingering impact of war on the lives of children and teenagers. What so impressed me is that the children come from such diverse backgrounds; they are soldiers and civilians, from families who fled war or the children of those who fought in it. In ways big and small, subtle and obvious, their lives have been touched by combat and the message they share is serious stuff: you don’t get over this, not completely, not ever. You just learn to live with what you know and somehow not let it destroy you.” –Colleen Mondor, Bookslut. Full review.

“In her introduction to this anthology of autobiographical accounts of childhood experiences of war, Powers notes that the world has seen at least 160 wars since 1945, and children are more likely to experience war during their lifetime than not. In these seventeen essays, most of them original to the collection, writers (almost all adult writers whose names will be new to young readers) recount their childhood and young adulthood experiences during wars in which they lost their homelands, their dreams, and their innocence. Historical facts and context set the stage for the personal stories, which range from experiences in the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. and the occupation of Holland during World War II, to personal and secondhand accounts of Vietnam from a soldier and the son of a soldier, to life in exile during the Cultural Revolution in China, to the ongoing unrest in Burma, among others. There is a riveting and revealing story of a pair of city boys who befriend a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and an account by a couple who have decided to rear their two young children in Juarez, Mexico, despite the fact that drug cartels have turned their city into a war zone. The stories are emotionally exhausting in their unflinching brutality, and thus perhaps best parsed out over time as teachers introduce students to the various conflicts. However, rich, detailed accounts like these of the displacement of war and its lingering effect on memories are essential to helping teens put a human face on tragedies that often seem too distant in both time and geography to grasp. These essays give readers a front-row seat to the hunger, the hardship, and, ultimately, the resilience of people whose childhoods were forever marked by life on the front lines. ” starred review, KC, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

“”In reading these documents of the inhumanities of war, we open our eyes to the ways brutality is perpetuated upon people and perhaps we become a little more compassionate from this understanding.” Edi Campbell, Viewpoints: Official Publication of the Indiana Council for the Social Studies

“When writing their end of quarter reflections, the students in my freshmen Humanities class wrote of the impact That Mad Game had on their learning. Comments such as ‘the instructor’s choice of That Mad Game was excellent, it opened my eyes and my heart to people and situations I had never thought of before,’ and ‘My sense of myself as a global citizen grew in leaps and bounds; I have a new awareness of how others suffer from injustice far beyond my own safety; it made me want to become more active in the world.’ I will continue to use That Mad Game as the central text for my freshmen students. It is a deeply humane way for young people to begin to grapple with the consequences of war.”   Merna Ann Hecht, University of Washington-Tacoma, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Lecturer

“There is heartache in the stories J.L. Powers has assembled here, as well as loss and pain and death. They are about war, after all. But there is humor too, and also love and faith and hope, because they are human stories too, and as each one testifies in its own way, humans are able to heal.”  Charles London, author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War.

“I was sent to the war in Afghanistan with a lot of slogans in my head about freedom and fighting terrorism. What I found instead was a tremendous respect for the good Afghan people, a deep sympathy for the Afghan children struggling for better lives, and a profound hatred of the Taliban for the way they brutalized their own people. That Mad Game is a reminder that such hatred is the same mistake from which all the world’s wars are born. The fact that That Mad Game can steer my hard heart toward sympathy for a young Talib is a sure sign of this book’s tremendous potential to foster a spirit of peace and understanding in readers everywhere.”  Trent Reedy, author of Words in the Dust and Stealing Air.

J.L. Powers is the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories and the author of two young adult novels, most recently This Thing Called the Future, an alternative fantasy set in post-apartheid South Africa. She began collecting essays on children and war while pregnant with her first child and says, “The experience was both painful and uplifting, not unlike giving birth. The most memorable aspect of these essays is their stark portrayal of both survival and hope in the midst of incredible suffering.”

Comments 7

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  2. Susan Davis Summer (Sue Summer)

    Observing Memorial Day…Second-hand
    By Sue Summer
    (Previously published in small town newspaper)

    Sometimes I feel that I have experienced war, if only second hand.
    I was no more than three, still sleeping in my parents’ room, when one night I was awakened by a scream: “Get your head down! Get your HEAD DOWN!”
    From the darkness I heard a strange bumping noise. Suddenly, the light clicked on and I could see my father on the hardwood floor. His head was pushed under the bed, and his arms and legs were flailing in a desperate struggle to crawl further underneath. He hurled himself against the bed springs, again and again, harder and harder—but his shoulders were too wide to fit.
    A tangle of scars on his legs twitched like spider webs in a fierce wind.
    I cried out in fear.
    He twisted his neck around and screamed from over his shoulder: “GET YOUR HEAD DOWN!”
    Just as suddenly, he dropped his head back under the bed and started crawling again.
    The memory ends there.
    I do not remember who comforted him awake or who comforted me back to sleep, but the terror of those few seconds—the anguish in his voice and the flailing of his arms and legs— has remained with me through all these many years.
    I was much older when I learned the details of my father’s nightmare. He was one of the Marines who landed on Iwo Jima in the third wave. He was one of the Marines who crawled on his belly through the barbed wire on the beach, one of the Marines who maneuvered around and over the dead as he dodged bullet after bullet—keeping his head down all the while.
    Only one in four Marines who landed on Iwo Jima in the third wave survived. My father was among them. With his own eyes he saw the American flag raised there on the hill—but by then he had also seen with his own eyes enough death to haunt a lifetime of dreams.
    When my father returned home at the end of the war, he carried in his knees, schrapnel. He carried in his mind horrific memories of fellow Marines who were killed on that beach beside him. He could no more erase from his memory the horror of those images than he could remove the schrapnel from his body…or than I could erase from my mind the terror of that night when I was three.
    My father performed his duty as a man, as a Marine, as an American. All of those who have since worried for him and comforted him and loved him—they, too, have experienced war, if only second hand.
    They, too, have performed their duty. As family.

    Sometimes I think that I have experienced war, if only second-hand.
    While my brother Danny was between tours of duty in Vietnam, he was stationed at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. For a while it seemed that our house was a designated R’n’R center for every Marine on the east coast. Many a week-end, six or seven would come home with Danny on Friday night and stay until Sunday evening.
    They called the visit a “swoop,” and the only rule of a swoop was: no one could go to bed on Saturday night until the Sunday paper hit the porch. We played Risk, we played Spades—we played dumb as we laughed too easy, too loud. Danny’s buddies came to view our house as a safe place, a place where they could forget if only for a little while.
    I cooked for them. I waited on them. I cleaned up after them. I listened to them speak of things that I wasn’t sure anyone should hear. Some were returning from Vietnam; some were heading in that direction. In the eyes of those who were returning lurked the pain of young men who had seen too much, too soon. In the eyes of those who were leaving was the fear—and bravado—of young men facing death.
    I learned their stories, but I chose not to learn their names. I chose not to learn their fate.
    Not once did I ask who of our previous visitors had left for Vietnam. Not once did I ask who among them did not return.
    Worrying about one Marine was frightening enough, and I could not find the courage to care too much about another.
    So it is that I cannot now go to the Wall and discover who lived and who died.
    Still, I sometimes wonder.
    Still, I sometimes grieve.
    Still, I sometimes see their faces and recognize my father as a young man.
    They, like him and my brother, performed their duty as men, as Marines, as Americans. And all of those who have since worried for them and comforted them, loved them—and mourned them—they, too, have experienced war, if only second hand.

    Sometimes I think that I have experienced war, if only second-hand.
    I read in the news that some veterans did not want President Clinton to visit the Wall on Memorial Day. He was a war protester, they said, and he had no right to be there.
    They may feel I have no right to go there, either.
    In the spring of 1972, because I desperately wanted my brother to come home, I participated in an anti-war demonstration at USC. I acted as an American who felt genuine concern and compassion for the young Marines I had entertained at my mother’s house. I acted out of a fierce love for—and in strong support of—my brother.
    For those same reasons, I now intend to visit the Vietnam Memorial.
    On Memorial Day I will make that pledge to the young men whose last names I chose not to know—because some of those names, I know, are chiseled on that Wall.
    I feel a need to remember them, to honor them, to mourn for them.
    From what I learned about those young men during “swoops,” they would not be bothered about what I did one spring afternoon in 1972 out of love for my brother and concern for them. They would want me to bring a deck of cards; they would want me to sit down with them; they would want to talk for a while.
    So I will.
    In my own way, I will honor those who survived and mourn those who did not. I will make them a promise to be ever grateful for the peace they brought to this nation at great personal sacrifice. I will make them a promise to put aside all social and political differences so that we may come together as a nation….to comfort, to love, to remember, and to mourn.
    That is our duty, and we will perform it—because under the flag that was raised on Iwo Jima, we are one people. The time is right for us to come together so that we may pray together: Long may that flag wave.
    As an American who has experienced war only second hand, I will visit the Vietnam Memorial out of respect for the dead and the wounded and the survivors. I intend no offense to those who say I have no place there, but I owe something to those young men whose names I chose not to learn. I owe them a “swoop.”
    They—and those who came before them—made it possible for me to live free and to have experienced war only second hand. May God bless all of those who performed their duty as soldiers—and those who are even yet performing their duty as family.
    Semper fi.


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