Review

Life: An Exploded Diagram

by Mal Peet

LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM is a unique war story narrated by Clem Ackroyd, who begins his tale with some in-depth family history. His grandparents, Win and Percy, start their courtship during World War I.  Percy works for the rich Mr. Mortimer before being shipped out for battle. Unfortunately, he doesn’t return and never meets his daughter, Ruth. Win and Ruth are poor, but Win has a job at the laundry, and they manage to survive.

"LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM is a unique and profound look at how a multigenerational family survives war time."
Later, Ruth meets George Ackroyd and they marry. George is soon sent off to war as well, this time World War II. When he finally makes it home, his son, Clem, whom he has never met, is three years old. George finds work with the Mortimer business, and the family manages to thrive a bit, though they are still considered lower class. George and Clem never do manage to bond very well.
 
In grade school, Clem takes an achievement test and manages to get a scholarship to the upper class high school. Only one other boy from the lower class wins a scholarship, Goz, and the two naturally become good friends. During the summers, they work in the Mortimer fields harvesting strawberries and the like. That’s where Clem meets Frankie Mortimer, who is sentenced to helping with the harvest after she runs away from her boarding school. The two are instantly attracted to each other, but under all circumstances must keep their romance a secret; nobody would approve of two teens from different classes being together. 
 
Then, in the fall of 1962, mankind comes extremely close to blowing the world up during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Clem and Frankie are completely wrapped up in their forbidden relationship, but they too are worried that there may not be many more tomorrows left. Neither one wants to die a virgin, so during the final culmination to World War III, they make their own plans for the ultimate countdown.
 
LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM is a unique and profound look at how a multigenerational family survives war time. Author Mal Peet uses a clever point of view method with Clem, narrating the story from first person as an adult, and third person as a teenager and with his family history. Peet especially focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis in the ’60s, with lots of political, historical and military details. He brings to life just how horrifyingly close mankind came to destroying ourselves. In addition, he uses lots of character development to bond with the readers, sharing the life stories of multiple generations, and cleverly employs irony, foreshadowing and a bit of dark satirical humor in his tale.
 
Now, if anyone is concerned about such things, the book does contain teen smoking, drinking and drug use, along with a few bad words. Overall, I got the feeling that this work might appeal more to adults than to teens. Or maybe it will eventually become assigned reading for a high school literature class rather than a book teens would read for fun. But I could be wrong about that. Either way, this is an intriguing and extremely well-written novel, and I suspect Peet can look forward to winning some awards.
 

Reviewed by Chris Shanley-Dillman on November 21, 2011

Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet