Questions of the Heart: When Patriotism and Love Collide

Learning to be a better writer comes from many things, not the least of which is having supportive and honest writing friends. It also comes from actively reading advice from knowledgeable sources. For example, this quotation is by Kristi Holl at

Conflict is also critical in a middle-grade novel. If a character has no problem to solve, there is no point to the story. The story plot consists of an urgent problem confronting your main character and how he or she goes about solving it, against tremendous opposition. Early in your story planning, decide what one thing your main character wants more than anything. (It must be something that cannot be easily obtained.)”

Combine writing partners and worthy advice with reading the highest quality examples of books in your writing genre/target age and the likelihood of improvement skyrockets. That why I love reading books by Kirby Larson. She’s the author of award-winning books for middle grade and young adult readers. She demonstrates absolute mastery of conflict in her 2013 release of DUKE.

9780545416375 DUKE

Scholastic Press, 2013

The cover question asks: “With the world at war, can a boy be as brave as his dog?” Set in a northwest coastal city in the USA during World War II, fifth grader Hobie faces living up to the standards of his brave father, who is a pilot on the European front. In the space of the first few pages we learn that Hobie’s best friend is moving away, a classroom bully never runs out of targets, and a  classmate of German heritage needs a friend.

If that seems like more than enough conflict for a two hundred page book, you haven’t read Larson’s work. Hobie’s radio hero Hop Harrigan is only one of many voices urging dog owners to “lend” their pets to the war effort. The pitch is to allow your pet to save lives of soldiers then come home as heroes. But Hobie’s companion and devoted dog, Duke, seems like the only thing keeping him from falling apart. How could he possibly send him away?

Is your mind racing right now about all the ways this could play out? Mine was, when I read the premise and began the journey. Larson avoids every potential maudlin pitfall while leading readers through Hobie’s decisions, reactions, interactions, and desperation. The components of conflict he deals with range from familiar peer pressures to traumatic news as the war continues and his responsibilities multiply.

DUKE is so well-written that, even with spoilers revealed, it is worth a second and third read (which I intend to give it). But I’ll refrain from any further hints as to the various plot and character developments to allow you to experience them first-hand. Larson’s author note at the conclusion addresses questions you may have about how much of the story or its events were factual. Readers will not want to miss what she has to share there.

I urge you to read this book. It makes history come alive, and offers opportunities to discuss the role of patriotism and government expectations in our personal values. Although the veterans of World War II are rapidly leaving us, another generation is a half step behind. Those who were kids on the home front are still able to share personal stories from childhood: food and gas rationing, collecting cooking fats, blue and gold stars in neighborhood windows. Duke invites discussions about that time with those who lived through it before those opportunities disappear.

And anyone with even a twinge of interest in writing should read DUKE, and Larson’s other titles, too.


3 Comments on “Questions of the Heart: When Patriotism and Love Collide

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