“Liberty” is the third book by Kirby Larson for middle grade readers about a child and a dog during WWII. In “Liberty,” a boy, a girl, and a dog dominate the story about life in New Orleans during World War II.
Fish, as he is nicknamed, contracted polio when young, and now that he’s in fifth grade, one leg is shorter than the other, causing him to limp. In the water, however, he is as fast as a fish — hence the nickname. His next door neighbor, Olympia, is friendly and helpful although they attend different schools. While Larson doesn’t actually describe Olympia, through clues in the text, the reader will come to realize that she attends a different school because she is black. At one point, Fish doesn’t want to take the trolley because they wouldn’t be able to sit together.
The story includes a large cast of characters, but Fish, Olympia and Liberty, the dog he befriends, are the important ones. Other supporting characters each have a history lesson to share. Mo, Fish’s sister, works for a company that builds Navy boats. She wants to study engineering because she is better at rebuilding car engines than she is at cooking and cleaning. She gets an opportunity to study drafting because of the war.
Fish’s father is in the military and physically gone for the whole book, but his communications with Fish and Mo bring home the distance that separates families during times of war. Larson points out that blacks and whites worked on different assembly lines and entered the building through different doorways. And the German military pressed into service children far younger than Erich, the seventeen-year-old prisoner of war.
Liberty is typical of any stray dog in the south then or now. Yelled at, stones thrown at her, threatened with being shot — all are part and parcel of life as a stray in many rural areas even now. Fish and Olympia save her, then lose her.
Larson cleverly ties all the story lines together when Erich, the young German prisoner of war, who has a brother with a bum leg just like Fish, sees Liberty when she’s lost her liberty.
There are many messages in this fine story, including that not all “bad guys” are really bad guys — even those whom we might think are our enemies. While at the same time, neighbors might be really bad “bad guys.” Compassion toward others — human and animal — are at the forefront of this beautiful book that children from third through sixth grade will greatly enjoy.
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by Scholastic, the publisher, for review purposes.