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Canine Courage

Canine Courage

Cynthia Kadohata -- whose children's novel Kira-kira won her a Newbery Medal in 2005 -- writes from the point of view of a Vietnam war scout dog in her latest book: Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam.

Ada Tseng Email AdaTseng

Newbery award-winning author Cynthia Kadohata loves dogs. Not in the way that most people love dogs -- for instance, because they're adorable, because they're fun to play with, because they give you unconditional love in times of loneliness... or because you're secretly scared of cats and feel pressured to pick a team in situations where the this "dog person vs. cat person" debate comes up in small talk.

No, Cynthia Kahodata loves dogs in a way that leads her call her Doberman her "doggie sister," although she and her ex-husband used to joke that they weren't technically "sisters" because the dog felt human to her, whereas she felt like a dog. Cynthia Kadohata loves dogs in a way that inspires her to write a children's book from the point of view of a dog. In fact, her editor didn't like her first idea (dogs in outer space) so she came up with the idea of having a dog story set in the Vietnam War -- only to get notes back on her manuscript telling her that her dog character was really developed, but the human characters needed a little work.

This novel in question, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, has recently hit the bookshelves, with characters of all species fully developed and ready to take the reader in a journey back to the Vietnam War, where soldiers paired up with dogs who were trained to sniff out bombs, booby traps, and enemy troops.

These dogs are thought to have saved at least 10,000 lives during the war, yet, during the time, there were no rules protecting their welfare. Therefore, at the end of the war, only approximately 200 out of 4,000 dogs came back safely. The rest were either killed in war, lost in the jungle, put to sleep, or left in South Vietnam with no trace.

In her novel, Kadohata creates a tribute to this dog/handler relationship that hasn't been discussed very much in the stories about the war. Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, follows a German Shepherd named Cracker (short for Firecracker), who has to leave her beloved owner, twelve-year-old Willie, when his family can't afford to keep her. Cracker, valued for her strength and agility, is given to the US Army, for whom she embarks on a dangerous adventure in the jungles of Vietnam with seventeen-year-old soldier Rick. The two are at first uncomfortable and wary but learn to trust and depend on each other. 

The first part of the novel has almost a sci-fi feel to it, when Cracker is suddenly taken away from the home that he knows -- with the comforts of chasing mice, eating hot dogs, sleeping on the twin bed with Willie -- but then is dragged away by strangers and put in a crate in the back of a van. She goes to a place where they make her do a lot of odd tests and is scared of what this new life will bring. Cracker meets Rick, someone who doesn't quite treat her like the center of the world like Willie did, but eventually they grow to respect each other and build a deeper bond. As they experience the action, danger, and brutality of war, their lives depend on each other and must learn to work as one.

An adolescent living in Chicago during the 1960s, Kahohata has very vivid memories of the Vietnam War and the protests surrounding it. As soon as she learned about the dogs in the Vietnam War, her curiosity was sparked, and she wanted to write about it. However, writing a children's book about the war required some balance.

"I wanted it to be realistic, but I didn't want it to go over the edge," says Kadohata. "I didn't want it to be so intense that kids couldn't read it. But it is war, so I wanted to be clear that it was really, really difficult, and people die."

To capture the scenes accurately, Kadohata interviewed many veterans who generously shared their stories with her. She aimed to capture the intense attachment and loyalty that comes from a solder and a dog who are constantly relying on each other in life-or-death situations. Nowadays, there is a "no military dog left behind" policy, but of the men she interviewed from the Vietnam War, none of them were able to take their dogs home with them.

Although she had already carved out her story beforehand, her interviews provided her with many of the details that are scattered throughout the novel -- for instance, the competitiveness amongst the soldiers and the stories about helicopter activities. There is one scene in the novel where a cook declares that he could heat up an entire mess hall worth of food in five minutes, using a 32-gallon trash can and a stick of C-4 explosive, only to have the whole thing explode in all directions -- and get everyone, including innocent wide-eyed spectators, punished for their mischief. That was based on a true story.

Kadohata talked to one of her interviewees, Rick Claggett, so much that he refers to Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam as "our" book. "He's really great," says Kadohata. "We went on a mini-tour where we went around schools and brought the dogs with us. One of the reasons he is so generous with his time is that he's really involved in the push to get a national monument to the dogs."

Previous to this novel, Kadohata has also written two other children's books: Weedflower and Kira-ira, for which she won the Newberry Medal in 2005. While the narrators for those two novels were young Japanese American girls, Kadohata is glad she is not limited to writing books about Asian Americans.

"For me, my home is my ethnicity, but at the same time, I don't want to be pigeonholed," says Kadohata. "I think there was a time when I first started where you really couldn't have written a book like Cracker. I mean, you could, but people would expect you to be writing about an Asian American theme.

"But now, there are so many Asian American writers that you can pretty much write about anything. I think people are more willing and open to books about anything at all from an Asian American writer. When I'm writing a book, I just want to write the best book that I can."

Kadohata's next book centers on four half sisters -- same mother, four different fathers -- and their adventures/misadventures, which lead to a terrible tragedy. 


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