American Ace by Marilyn Nelson

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Engaging and short, one teenager’s search for answers will leave readers wanting to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen.  

American Ace by Marilyn Nelson.  Dial Books, 2016, 117 pages.

Reading Level: Young Adult, Ages 12-15

Recommended for: ages 15 and up

Connor is a normal teen, “half Irish, half Italian.”  His grandmother’s death and his father’s resulting depression trouble him, but driving lessons are fun, and Dad is slowly getting better.

Then one day, out driving, Dad tells Connor about grandma’s letter.  In it, she revealed his father was not her husband —who raised him— but an American named Ace.  The only clues to Ace’s identity are a ring and pilot’s wings.

Connor’s curiosity is sparked, and he starts researching the ring, eventually tracing it to Wilberforce University.  “But Wilberforce is an HBCU . . . a black college or university, from back in the old days of segregated schools.”  

This comes as a shock, but subsequent research confirms Connor’s discovery.  His interest intensifies as he realizes his mysterious grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman.  Part of the book is presented as Connor’s school research project on the Tuskegee Airmen —while page headings contain glimpses of Connor’s continuing life.

Nelson’s positive portrayal of history, a happy family, and healthy father-son interaction is refreshing.  However, modernity shines through the story, providing some cautions.  Connor’s research captures history, but leaves out any mentions to religiosity or faith.  After initial shock (not expressed) his father’s family speak of their late mother’s “grand romance,” needlessly glorifying the illicit affair.  This is dwelt on more than the love of her husband who married her and raised her son as his own.  Modernity creeps into little details, too.  Connor has a half brother, “Dad’s son with his ex.”  Occasional swearing occurs, and no true faith is shown —amplified when the non-religious talk about praying.

Realizing these cautions, American Ace proves an interesting introduction to the Tuskegee Airmen.  Short enough for even a reluctant reader, Nelson’s ability to spin a story and her love and pride in history are evident.  The history of the Tuskegee Airmen, hinted at in vignettes and condensed to fit in free verse, is enough to tantalize readers —perhaps Nelson’s intent!

Nelson’s afterword should be read.  In it she tells “Why an Older African American Woman Ended Up Writing as a Young White Man” as well the real pieces of history that inspired Connor’s story.  It’s not quite so implausible as you might imagine.  The only thing missing is a list of books where readers can learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen.  (Luckily we’ve reviewed a free verse history of the airmen, so start there!)

Cautions (Language/Profanity: mild language, one profanity, reference to middle finger, Morality: story revolves around an out-of-wedlock affair Worldview: see above caution)

Overall Rating: 4 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3
  • Artistic value: 4.5

Discussion Starters

While Connor is fictional, his research reveals real history.  History lovers will recognize a greater story behind Nelson’s every line: a dogfight, letters from Chicago schoolchildren, Ed Gleed, men from so far west they had never known another Negro family . . . . What part of Connor’s story sparked your imagination or made you want to learn more?

When Connor is driving, he has to make a U-Turn in a bad part of town.  Can you relate?  Do you see irony in what he later learns?

How much do you know about your family?  Does this make you want to research your family’s history and heritage?

Connor doesn’t pray, “Because I don’t believe; or don’t know if I do.  The difference is moot, since anyway I’ve been confirmed . . .”  Do you know anyone who feels this way?  Where do you base your faith?

Do you like the book’s last line?  Does it satisfy you?  What do you think of Nelson’s use of real photographs?

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