It is Korea, 1950, and Jesse Brown, first African American carrier pilot in the Navy, has just crashed over enemy territory . . .
Devotion by Adam Makos. Ballantine Books, 2015, 401 pages.
Reading Level: Adult
Recommended for: ages 16 and up
Dozens of black sailors leaned across the railing like men at a ballpark hoping to snag a homer. They wore navy pea coats and white hats and had come from the mess hall or engineer room or the staterooms where they made the officers’ bunks. They had come to watch the navy’s first black carrier pilot land, to see history being made, no different than a man yearning to see Jackie Robinson steal home plate. But the stakes were higher here. No one ever got killed trying to steal a base.
—And the stakes were higher still when the Korean War began. While supporting Marines in the Chosin Reservoir, Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first African American carrier pilot, crashed. The subsequent actions of his good friend and fellow pilot Tom Hudner earn the book its title.
After a chapter setting the stage, Makos takes readers back in time, tracing the lives of both men. Brown’s tenacious rise from a Mississippi sharecropper’s son to carrier pilot is particularly gripping. With dignity and determination, he faced discrimination and, against all odds, triumphed. Meanwhile, Hudner, from a well-to-do New England family, chose to serve his country over studying at Harvard.
Makos focuses on the time Brown and Hudner served together: their first flight in New England, tour in the Mediterranean, and service in Korea. Along the way, readers meet pilots and Marines, including no-nonsense “Red” Parkinson, a New York farm boy, and Ed Coderre, an 18-year-old who could have played for the Red Sox but chose to enlist with his friends instead.
Vivid and engaging, Makos’s writing style brings history to life. Smiles, waves, and conversations are recorded —pieced together from extensive research and interviews. Occasional footnotes give readers a bigger picture of the historical setting while several maps of Korea provide geographical context.
This book is intended for adults, and it includes mild language and profanity as well as some sensuality. War is not a game, and Makos brings this home —blood-covered snow is seen from above, planes crash, pilots die, and grenades explode. Grim reality is created from memories, yet the violence remembered is not gratuitious.
While faith is not dwelt upon, Makos does not hide it either. Jesse is a Christian who writes about his faith and prays. Some of Red’s fellow Marines are devout, but he himself is skeptical. (On a faith note, readers need to read the afterword where it tells what happened to each character. —Hint, it’s the best part of Red’s story!) Friendship and loyalty are main themes throughout the book. Jesse’s friendship and acceptance by the other pilots is especially meaningful given the times.
Could younger teens read this book? Absolutely. This is history and reality. Most of my knowledge of World War II came from reading books like Devotion as an early teen. With discernment regarding its cautions, Devotion could be enjoyed by a younger teen, or even a mature 12-year-old.
For older readers who love history —go get this book. You won’t regret it.
Cautions: Violence (War violence) Language (mild swearing and profanity throughout story), Sensuality (Men hope for a glimpse of a girl in a bikini. Hudner sees another pilot canoodling a scantily clad girl. In contrast, a poignant love letter from Jesse to his wife is included, in full, in the book’s appendix. Groping is mentioned in an embarrassing yet funny accident — it doesn’t happen! Men clean their lockers when they ship out, getting rid of things they wouldn’t want their families to receive, including bras & lingerie)
Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Worldview/moral value: 4.5
Artistic value: 4.5