This historical fiction book by Cynthia Kadohata is published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division. The book is written for ages 10 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
During the Vietnam War, Willie and his family move into a small apartment in Chicago after Willie's father loses his job. Because the apartment does not allow dogs, Willie's family is forced to give up Willie's beloved German shepherd, Cracker, to the Army. Cracker is transferred to an Army base where she becomes angry, sad and aggressive because she is no longer with Willie.
Rick Hanski is a 17-year-old who is determined to conquer the world when he enlists in the Army. Rick is assigned a position as a dog handler and is matched with Cracker. After a rough start, Cracker and Rick begin working well together as Cracker learns to trust Rick.
When their training is complete, Rick and Cracker go to Vietnam. Rick and his buddies, Cody and Twenty-Twenty, work with the dogs to sniff out the enemy, traps and other dangers. Cracker quickly becomes known as one of the best war dogs in the field and is assigned important missions. Because of her reputation, Rick and Cracker join a Special Forces unit on a rescue mission in Cambodia where Cracker attacks an enemy just as he is about to shoot Rick. Rick begins to worry about the fate of Cracker when the war is over. The Army is classifying the dogs as military equipment and leaving them behind. Rick decides to respond to the letters Willie has written him asking about Cracker's performance in the war. Rick hopes that Willie and Twenty-Twenty's uncle, a lieutenant colonel, can help Cracker return home safely.
When Rick and Cracker go on a routine mission to check a village for the enemy, the commanding officer ignores Rick's cautions that Cracker is signaling danger and the unit is ambushed. During the firefight, Rick is badly injured.
After the battle, Cracker is missing. Rick spends time recovering in the hospital and tries to find news of Cracker. Meanwhile, Cracker travels through the jungle and makes her way back to camp, only to find it deserted. Rick is told he is being sent back to the United States for rehabilitation, but all he can think about is finding Cracker.
After a massive letter-writing campaign, Rick receives word that Cracker made her way to Ben Hoa where Cody recognized her. She is one of the only dogs spared from being euthanized or left in Vietnam. Rick calls Willie, and the two of them meet Cracker in Chicago. Rick and Cracker choose to remain together as they build new lives for themselves stateside.
Rick prays once.
Willie Stetson's father and mother are sad that Willie must give up his dog due to their change in living situations. They encourage Willie to take comfort because Cracker will be a hero in Vietnam.
Rick Hanski struggles with respecting his parents and his superiors in the Army, but later he sees how they are looking out for his best interests. Rick's service in Vietnam teaches him how to respect authority even when he has different opinions.
Other belief systems
Rick mentions that he once had his fortune read by a fortune-teller.
The words d--n, h--- and d---mit are used. Men are shot and killed in battle.
Rick mentions his dad explaining girls and "all that." The word virgin is used and the story mentions the soldiers having "choice magazines" (pornography).
Maud Hart Lovelace Award Master List, 2009; William Allen White Children's Book Award, 2009
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- How did Willie feel about giving up his dog?
Where else could he have sent Cracker besides the Army?
How is this sad situation turned into something good?
When have you expected something bad to happen but it turned out better than you thought?
- How is the war different from what Rick imagined?
When were you excited about something that wasn't as good as you thought it would be?
- Why does Rick want to fight in Vietnam?
With whom does he discuss his decision to sign up for the Army?
Whom would you talk to about a big decision?
- Why does Rick get into trouble with Sgt. U-Haul?
How does he treat Rick after Rick is injured?
What things might happen to someone that would change the way you felt about that person?
- How did Rick's relationship with Cracker change him?
What might happen to Rick and Cracker now?
Can loving something or someone change you?
Smoking: The book frequently mentions soldiers smoking.
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