Front Lines book cover

This month, we’re reading:

Front Lines

Michael Grant

 

An epic, genre-bending, and transformative new series that reimagines World War II with female soldiers fighting on the front lines in a compelling work of alternate history. Three teenage girls battle sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism when they’re enlisted to fight in World War II. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, they will discover the roles that define them on the front lines. They will fight the greatest war the world has ever known.

This title will run until December 31.

Chapter One

RIO RICHLIN—GEDWELL FALLS, CALIFORNIA, USA

1942.

Remember 1942? It’s been a long three and a half years since then, hasn’t it? In 1942 the Japanese were unchecked, rampaging freely across Asia. The Germans had taken all of Europe and some of Africa before running into trouble in the Soviet Union. Our British allies had been hit hard, very hard.

And we Americans?

Well, we were just getting into it. Still with plenty of time to worry about the little things . . .

“Rio Richlin, stay out of the sugar. Heavens, girl, the ration for the family is thirty-two ounces a week, and I’m saving for your sister’s birthday cake.”

“I just used a teaspoonful for my coffee, Mother.”

“Yes, well, a teaspoon here, a teaspoon there, it adds up. Who knows what Rachel is getting to eat?” Mrs. Richlin says. She has deep and dark suspicions when it comes to navy rations.

Rio is sixteen and pretty; not a beauty, but pretty enough. Tall for a girl, and with the strong shoulders and calloused hands of a farmer’s daughter. Rangy, that’s one word. If she’d been a boy, she’d have played ball and you’d expect her to be able to throw from center field to home without much trouble.

Her complexion is cream in the mild Northern California winter and light-brown sugar during the long days of summer, with faint freckles and brown hair pulled back into a practical ponytail.

“I guess the navy is feeding her; wouldn’t make much sense to starve your own sailors,” Rio points out.

“Well, I don’t suppose her captain is making her a nineteenth birthday cake. Do you?”

Mrs. Richlin emphasizes what she sees as her conclusive statement by taking the ration book with its multicolored stamps and fanning it out on the table in front of Rio. “You see the situation. Thank goodness for the cows. I trade my milk to Emily Smith for her coffee ration, otherwise your father and you would have nothing to drink.”

“There’s always beer.” This from Rio’s father, Tam, who rushes through the kitchen on his way to the feed store he owns. “But not for you, young lady,” he adds quickly, pointing at Rio then winking.

It’s a spacious kitchen with green-painted oak cupboards on most of one wall, a battered and well-used white-enameled stove and oven, a long porcelain sink, and a deeper tin sink beside it. There’s a bare wood counter so long-used that dips are worn into the edge where three generations of Richlin women have kneaded bread dough and chopped carrots and parsnips and sliced tomatoes fresh from the garden.

In the center of the room stands a round table—antique, quarter-sawn oak—surrounded by five chairs, only two of which match and all of which squeak and complain when used.

The house is old, having passed down from her father’s great-grandfather, the Richlin who settled in Gedwell Falls after coming two thousand miles in an ox-drawn wagon. Rio has never doubted that she will spend the rest of her youth in this place, going to school, doing her chores, and spending time with her best friend, Jenou.

She’s also never doubted that she’ll marry, have children, and keep house. When they discuss these matters, as they often do, Jenou always emphasizes to Rio the importance of marrying someone prosperous. “Money and looks, Rio,” she always says. “Money and looks.”

“What about kindness, generosity of spirit, and a sense of humor?”

To which Jenou invariably responds with a despairing shake of her head and a slow repetition. “Money and looks. In that order.”

Rio assumes, has always assumed, that she will be like her mother, who is like her grandmother. For the most part Rio accepts that. But there is a small voice in her mind and heart that senses something off about it all. Not bad, just off. Like she’s trying on an outfit that will never fit, and isn’t her color.

This dissatisfaction is vague, unformed, but real. The problem is, being dissatisfied does not mean she has any better goal. Or any goal at all, really, except of course to get through her final year of high school with grades that don’t disgrace her and the family.

Rio sweeps her math work sheet into her brown leather book bag, slings it over her shoulder, kisses her mother on the cheek, and follows her father toward the front door.

Her father is stopped there, framed in the doorway against the early sunlight of the street beyond. He’s a tall man with a face carved to leanness by the hard years of the Great Depression, when he kept a roof over his family’s heads by taking on any work he could find, often going straight from his shop to mucking out cesspools or painting barns.

In the teasing voice that is their common currency, Rio says, “Come on, Dad, some of us have places to . . .”

Rio focuses past him and sees a uniformed telegram delivery boy.

Rio’s heart misses two beats. Her steps falter. She tries to swallow and can’t, tries to breathe but there’s a weight pressing down on her chest. She moves closer. Her father notices her and says, “It’s probably nothing.”

“Is this the Richlin residence?” the delivery boy asks. He mispronounces it with a soft “ch” instead of the correct “ck” sound.

He should be in school, that boy. He can’t be much older than twelve. Maybe this is an early delivery before heading off to school. Maybe . . .

Tam Richlin takes the envelope. It’s buff-colored, thin paper. He hesitates, turning the envelope as if he can’t find the right way around. He licks his lips, and Rio’s unease deepens.

“What is it?” Her voice wobbles.

“Thank you,” Mr. Richlin says. The delivery boy touches the brim of his cap and speeds back to his bicycle, relief showing in the quickness of his step.

“What is it?” Rio asks again.

He licks his lips again, takes a deep breath. Suddenly urgent, he tears the envelope open and draws out the sheet. He stares at it. Just that, just stares, and Rio knows.

After a terrible long silence in which the world stops turning and the birds stop singing and the breeze does not blow, she reaches for it and takes it from his nerveless fingers. The words are all in capital letters.

THE NAVY DEPARTMENT DEEPLY

REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR

DAUGHTER RACHEL RICHLIN . . .

Rio makes a small, whimpering sound. She looks at her father. He sags against the door jamb, head bowed. She sees him in profile only, a dark outline of a man looking at nothing.

. . . YOUR DAUGHTER RACHEL RICHLIN WAS KILLED IN ACTION IN THE PERFORMANCE

OF HER DUTY AND IN THE SERVICE OF

HER COUNTRY.

“Tam? Rio?”

Rio turns guilty eyes already glittering wet to her mother. Her mother sees the telegram and the expression on her husband’s face and the way he slumps there like every ounce of strength is gone from him. She falls to her knees, falls like she’s been shot, like the muscles in her legs have just quit all at once.

“No, it’s . . . ,” she says. “No, it’s, no. No. No. No, no, no, no. Not my baby, not my baby, not my baby, please no, please no.” It starts off denial, ends up pleading.

Rio runs to her mother, kneels beside her, puts her arms around her mother’s shoulders—though what she wants is for her mother to comfort her, tell her that it’s a joke or a mistake or a simple impossibility. Her mother is shaking. Saying No, no, not my baby, please, please, over and over again, as if saying it will make it true, as if it’s a magic spell to ward off the wave of pain coming her way.

Tam Richlin leans there with head bowed and says nothing. His fists clench then relax as if he simply lacks the strength to go on. But he says nothing. Nothing, no sound, as his wife howls in plain misery, howls into the hollow of her surviving daughter’s neck.

Tam Richlin says, “I best go open the shop.” And with that he is gone.

Rio moves her mother to the sofa, literally physically having to take her mother’s heaving shoulders and lift. Rio goes to the kitchen to make tea, because isn’t that what people do at moments like this? Don’t they make tea? As the water heats, she sets out the good silver tea service, focusing for as long as she can on the placement of the elements: the pot, the sugar bowl, the little, slightly mismatched cream pitcher, all of it clattering because her fingers are clumsy. It feels right, somehow, using the good silver, the silver that only comes out for Christmas, baptisms, rare occasions when some important person comes calling, and when sisters die. The person you used to gossip with, quarrel with, share clothing with, learn from. . . . The person you wanted to be like when you grew up. This day could not be marked with tea from a chipped old china teapot.

“I just see her in that cold, gray water,” Millie Richlin says. Tears spill from her eyes, and she makes no attempt to wipe them away. “I just want to . . .” Her arms reach for what is no longer there and close around air. “But she’s with Jesus now. She’s in the loving arms of Jesus.”

Where was Jesus when the Japanese bombs fell straight and true?

Rio is not ready for the comfort of religion. Anger fills her. “Dirty Japs,” she mutters. “Rotten, dirty Japs. Rachel wasn’t even on a battleship, it was a . . .” She realizes she doesn’t know what kind of ship Rachel was on; the censors forbade that kind of information. All she knows is that Rachel reassured her she was in no danger. I’m just on a big old tub no one would waste a torpedo on. “Dirty Japs. Dirty Japs, why did they start this war? Why did . . .”

“She was always so . . .”

“I’d kill them myself if I could, the dirty . . .”

“. . . good with the chores and so helpful, and so . . .”

“. . . Japs. Them and the Krauts both.”

“. . . cheerful. She must have . . .” She grabbed Rio’s arm. “Why did she go? Why did she enlist?”

“Because she’s brave,” Rio snaps. Now the tears come fast. “She’s brave, and she wants to do her part.” She will not use past tense for her sister. Rachel is brave, not was. Is.

Her mother looks at her in alarm. “No, Rio, no.”

“Rachel did her part, and now she’s . . .”

Not that word. Not yet.

“I sit here with my stupid algebra homework.” Rio kicks at the leg of the coffee table. The tea set rattles.

“You stop that right now, Rio. I’ve lost . . . I won’t . . . I couldn’t stand it. I would lose my mind. And your father . . .” Desperation in that voice, hopelessness, fear, and it all feeds Rio’s anger.

Rio glances at the door through which her father disappeared. No one has closed it. The street outside is cruelly bright, a gorgeous Northern California morning with palms riding high and lavender flowers threatening to cover the sidewalk.

Rio’s father will have reached the feed store by now. He will have unlocked the door and turned the Closed sign around to Open. Being a man, that’s what he’s doing, being a man who does not cry because men do not cry. Crying is reserved for women.

Rio’s gaze goes to the small vertical window beside the door where the service flag hangs, a red-and-white rectangle with a single blue star sewn onto the side facing the street. There are those flags all up and down the block. All over Gedwell Falls. All over California, and all over America. They show that the family has a member in service. Some houses bear flags with two or three such stars.

At the beginning of the war there were only blue stars, and it was an honor, a matter of pride, but now in many towns around the country some of those blue stars are being removed and replaced by gold ones.

A gold star hanging in your window means a family member has made the ultimate sacrifice. That’s the phrase, the approved phrase, ultimate sacrifice. Rachel’s gold star will be the first in Gedwell Falls.

Rio wonders how it is done. Who switches the blue star for gold? Does the government send you a new flag? How very kind of them. Will her mother have to do the sewing herself? Will she have to go to the sewing store to get the star herself, God forbid, to get the right color thread and to ask the clerk . . .

If Rio is drafted the flag will bear a gold star and a blue.

Don’t think of how scared Rachel must have been. Don’t think of the water smothering her as . . .

“I’m not of legal age yet,” Rio says, placating her mother with a touch on her arm. “I won’t be eighteen for more than a year.”

But her mother is no longer listening. She has withdrawn into silence. Rio sits with her in that silence until, after a few more hours, the news spreads and friends and relatives begin to arrive with covered dishes and condolences.

The sad and somber rituals of war have arrived in Gedwell Falls.

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