A 12-year-old orphan sees the effects of war when a member of his foster family returns without a leg
Peace, Locomotion. By Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 136 pp., $15.99. Ages 9–12 (see further discussion below).
By Janice Harayda
Jacqueline Woodson is a spare and thoughtful writer – a bit too spare and thoughtful in this slow-moving sequel to Locomotion, a National Book Award finalist in which a sensitive orphan told his story in 60 poems. Now Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) is 12 years old and describes his life in letters to his younger sister, Lili, who lives with a different foster mother. The epistolary format may be the most interesting thing about the book.
Peace, Locomotion exemplifies a disheartening trend in children’s fiction toward novels that often read like bibliotherapy: They focus on feelings at the expense of plot, suspense and character development. This book has passages in which we don’t just hear Lonnie’s feelings: We hear his feelings about his feelings. After his teacher makes him “feel stupid,” he tells us: “I hate that feeling.” The novel has relatively little action. Lonnie likes living with his foster mother, whom he calls Miss Edna, in Brooklyn. But her son Jenkins joined the Army Reserve to earn money for college and has ended up fighting in an unnamed war – apparently, in Iraq. Jenkins loses a leg to “insurgents and a car bomb,” and when he comes home, has to use a wheelchair until he learns to walk with crutches. He also has signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Lonnie finds a sense of purpose in helping his foster brother and realizes that “Peace is the good stuff / That happens to all of us / Sometimes.”
Peace, Locomotion reflects a quiet pacifism that might help to disabuse some children of Rambo fantasies. But its heavy subjects clash with the lightweight treatment they receive in the novel. Jenkins doesn’t come home from the war until page 104 of a 136-page story – a timing that limits the potential for a relationship to develop between them and for transformation to occur. “Locomotion” is an odd name for a narrator whose story moves so languidly and to whom, in this book, so little happens.
Best line: “That’s what she calls old people – seniors. Like they’re about to graduate from high school or something.”
Worst line: Peace, Locomotion sticks closely to the prevailing therapeutic ideas about what’s “good” for children and is less interesting than it might have been if Woodson had taken more risks. Here is Locomotion’s foster mother speaking to her son after he comes home without a leg: “Let all the tears you have in you come on out, she kept saying. It’s good. It’s okay.”
Recommendation: School Library Journal recommends this novel for grades 4–6, but – grim subjects like PTSD notwithstanding – it has a much less complex plot than many books appeal to that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels.
Published: January 2009
About the author: Woodson was shortlisted for a National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush and for a Newbery Medal for Feathers and Show Way.
Furthermore: The letters in this book are interspersed with a scattering of poems, also written by Lonnie.