Title: American Ace
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Review copy: Purchased at local bookstore
Availability: On shelves now
Summary: This riveting novel in verse, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Toni Morrison, explores American history and race through the eyes of a teenage boy embracing his newfound identity.
Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.
But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.
It’s funny to think about identity,
Dad said. Now I wonder how much of us
we inherit, and how much we create.
Connor and his family go through some soul-searching as they find out their heritage is something other than what they had always believed. We see the unfolding story through Connor’s eyes. His family has suffered the loss of his beloved Nonna and Connor is concerned about his father’s grief and possible depression. Otherwise life had been moving along as expected. Connor spends a lot of time with his dad as he practices driving to get his license. Things become complicated quickly though when Connor’s father explains that he has no idea who his father was. The journey to discover their family history leads them to new ways of thinking about themselves and the society they inhabit. After learning about their more complicated heritage, Connor sees his school in a new way.
I walked between classes in slow motion,
seeing the ancient intertribal wars
still being fought, in the smallest gestures.
Little things I hadn’t noticed before:
the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.
The story is delivered in nine parts containing five vignettes each. These are made up of two twelve line stanzas written in iambic pentameter. I often forget that poetry can be incredibly mathematical. Such a structure makes for extremely deliberate choices. This format meant there wasn’t much room for explanation. Nelson kept things tight. I appreciate that and so will readers looking for something quick yet meaningful. I almost always enjoy a novel in verse. I like the way Nelson delivers small packages of information and makes every word count. The titles are even important.
In part seven, the text shifts a bit and becomes a paper for Connor’s Honors History class. This brought in something I really appreciated. Photos of airmen from WWII are included every few pages. These added a lot to the story. With the photos, the pilots became something more than history. They became individuals with lives and stories of their own. In the author’s note, Nelson explains about the information for Connor’s report, “I did not invent any of the facts Connor learns….That part of the story is true. And still amazing.”
One thing did shake me out of the story a bit. The setting appears to be the present day since Connor uses google and his father has rapid DNA testing. With Connor being a teen, it seems a little strange that his grandfather is old enough to have been a pilot in WWII. My grandfather fought in the war and my children are older than Connor. It sort of works because Connor’s father has a child and grandchildren from a previous relationship so he was not young when he had Connor. It made me do some math though because it seemed difficult to believe.
Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of verse novels or enjoy historical novels and want something quick. Otherwise, borrow it someday. I truly enjoyed the book, but if I were recommending Nelson’s poetry, I would first hand someone A Wreath for Emmett Till and How I Discovered Poetry.
Extra: Warning – the following interview reveals their family heritage. I tried not to do that here since the publisher’s summary didn’t. If you want to know precisely what history this book explores though, please read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with author