Three of my favorite novels are Oh, Be Careful by Lee Colgate; At War As Children by Kit Reed; and The Lion in the Lei Shop by Kaye Starbird. The first two were published in the early 1960s and the last one in 1970. When I think about what always links these books together in my mind (I almost never think of them separately), it’s that I must have read them within a few years of each other; although I don’t remember in what order, or what was happening in my life when I discovered them. I do know that I was in my twenties, and the experiences of the main characters were completely understandable, if not my own experiences. Oh, Be Careful is the story of a young woman’s first serious, life-altering, love affair. It’s about how we become the adults we are through a combination of disastrous choices, accident, and pure chance. As far as I know, Colgate never wrote another novel—I so wish she had.
At War As Children takes place during and after World War II. The main character is Denise McLeod, who grows up on a series of submarine bases with her mother, attending Catholic school, playing with her closest friend Bunker, and all the time waiting for letters from her beloved father, who is off at sea. When tragedy comes close to home, Denny tries to cope with it in various ways—some helpful, some not, but all growing organically out of the young woman she is becoming. Reed, who teaches at Wesleyan University, went on to write many other works of fiction; but none has touched me as much as this one did. I have often wondered what she, herself, thinks about this, her second novel.
Interestingly, The Lion in the Lei Shop is also set during and after World War II. (And WWII is not really my war—that would be Vietnam, so that’s certainly not why I love these two books so much.) The story begins on the day Pearl Harbor is bombed; Marty and her parents are living at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa, Hawaii, where her father is a career Army officer. Following the bombing, her father goes on active duty and basically disappears from Marty’s life. How she tries to make sense of what’s happened to her family is affecting (boy, did I cry when I read this book!) and yet not at all manipulative or fakey.
So on the surface, what these three novels have in common is three-dimensional, pretty wonderful main female characters who are working hard at trying to understand who they are and how they’re to live their lives. If I tried to dig a little more into the “why” of my loving them so much (I own them all in hardback, and I don’t keep a lot of books), it would probably require either a hypnotist or psychiatrist. Or, preferably, both. In any event, it’s clearly time for another rereading round of the three.