Three Favorites

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.



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8 responses to “Three Favorites

  1. Wendy

    Our library does not have any of these books! I am so disappointed as we are in a large metro area (Seattle). Can you also specify an age range for these books? Both of my kids are advanced readers and it’s hard to find challenging enough books that are age apropriate. Thank you for you blog! Love it.

    • nancy pearl

      These are all adult novels, or at least late teens. I’d try inter-library loan through my local library to get them. Or – that’s the website I try first.

  2. Oceans 7

    I’m dying to read Oh Be Careful by Lee Colgate, but cannot find it anywhere! Any suggestions?

  3. Erika

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, and your appearances on NPR as well. Are these three books still your favorites, or do you just have good memories of reading them? When I was Googling for more information on these books, I noticed that way back in 1997 you named At War As Children and Oh Be Careful as “books which are better remembered than reread” in the Washington Library Association Journal ( Would this still hold true?
    You mentioned lots of other great books in that same interview that I will be looking for now!

  4. Dear Nancy Pearl,

    When you published your reissue wish list in November, I added most of the titles to my “to read” list. Recently I interlibrary borrowed and read (and enjoyed!) “The Lion in the Lei Shop”. Now I’ll have to get right on “Oh, Be Careful” and “At War as Children”.

    Though I was born during WWII, I have no memory of it at all. In fact have stopped reading stories about combat and Holocaust atrocities pretty much entirely. There’s too much out there that isn’t such a downer. (And too much out there that is!) What I most enjoyed about “Lion” was that all the blood and gore was off-stage, but not its effect on the characters, especially Marty. Growing up I had such children as classmates in grade school, as well as the children of camp survivors and one who had amazingly survived the camps herself. Vietnam may have been the war we knew best in our young adulthood, but the effects of WWII are with all of us who were born during it, and are different from those of the wave of boomers that followed closely behind us. By definition, baby boomers are the children of those who made it back.

    Thank you for your usually impeccable taste. I’ve read and annotated your books, especially the Lust pair, and don’t feel I need to bother with most other reviews. Please keep spilling the beans!

    Your appreciator,

    Susan Reiners

  5. Nancy Pearl

    I read Up a Road Slowly, but not the other one. I’m going to put it on hold today. There’s a great novel called The Lotus Eaters by Soli – an adult novel about a woman photojournalist in Vietnam – I loved it.

  6. jackie specht

    Your mention of these books and the struggle of women to find a place in this world reminds me of two “teen” books I adored written with this theme in mind. They are “The Road Home” by Ellen Emerson White and “Up a Road Slowly” by Irene Hunt. Ms White’s book centers around a nurse in the Vietnam war and it is powerful and compelling. Ms. Hunt’s book (all of her books are wonderful!) deals with a young girl’s sense of the journey to adulthood. Worthy for adults to read!

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