I believe stories about dogs should come with a disclaimer stating whether or not the dog lives. If you read stories about dogs, you probably understand my position. While I can take dark, dystopian science fiction, stories with psychotic serial killers as protagonists, pain and suffering piled on top of angst and despair, if the dog dies, I do not want to read the book.
This is not a rational position, I know. I cannot justify it; I simply acknowledge it.
So. If you want to know if whether or not the dog dies before you read Cracker, simply leave your contact information in a comment. I’ll be happy to let you know in an email.
No spoilers here.
Cracker!The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata has been very popular with my students this year. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see at a student with a copy of it in their hands during lunch or study hall. So, I took a copy home over winter break and read it. I can see why it’s so popular.
Cracker is a German Shephard, happily living with Willie, a boy who lives with his mother and father in the Chicago area in the early 1970’s. When Willie’s father loses his job and the family is forced to move into an apartment, Cracker must find a new home. Instead of surrendering her to a shelter, Willie gives her to the army which is looking for dogs it can train to sniff out booby traps in Vietnam. The book follows Cracker through boot-camp where she is assigned to Rick Hanski, a young man who volunteered for the army. Rick and Cracker train together as a team and are sent to serve in the closing days of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Though Cracker’s performance in Vietnam is heroic by any standards, her life is threatened when the army decides not to bring the sniffer dogs home at the end of the war. Most were put-down; some were assigned to the South Vietnamese army. Rick, who is sent home early due to a wound, begins a letter writing campaign to everyone he can think of hoping to get Cracker back.
Cracker! is not high art. Kadohata is interested in telling her young audience a good story and tell a good story she does. Her characters are three dimensional enough and entirely believable, even when we are reading Cracker’s thoughts and feelings. Ms. Kadohata’s writing is crisp, clean, to the point. While very good, it never gets in the way of the plot. Her depiction of the war is exciting rather than disturbing. She does mention the bad stuff, but the book never leaves the realm of an adventure tale to become an anti-war novel. In fact, I found it a bit pro-war myself. While no one will ever confuse it with The Call of the Wild, in the end, Cracker! is completely safe for kids.
If you find the child in your life looking it over on the shelf in the bookshop or the local library, don’t hesitate to get it for them. I don’t think it will change anyone’s life, but it will certainly keep everyone reading through to the end.
In the years since I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2010, Cracker’s popularity has diminished. All five of my classroom copies were read and re-read until they fell apart and had to be recycled. But, I don’t see many students with a copy of Cracker during Friday Reading Races much anymore. It’s still a good story, still one I recommend to anyone with a “reluctant reader” in need of a book. But most kids, like most adults, prefer to read what’s new. Cracker! is not so new anymore.