Remember show and tell? Basically, you'd bring in something interesting/weird/gross and talk to your classmates about it. Authors like to apply those same rules to writing. Instead of telling us something ("Jamie is excited"), they show us instead. O'Roark Dowell is queen of this. She doesn't come right out and tell us how Jamie is feeling, but slyly uses the tone to do the talking. Take a look at this passage:
TJ's next so-called letter came two weeks later. I ripped open the padded envelope, hoping this time there'd be a note with some real news in it, some good old-fashioned descriptions of rifle reports or a hand grenade rolling across a jungle path, something that would give me a real feel for what it was like to be TJ right then. It might be tough for me to actually get a job as an ambulance driver in Vietnam, but if TJ would just write me a real letter, it would be like I was there in Vietnam, right beside him. (7.1)
What do you feel when reading that? Excited, eager, enthusiastic, and maybe even a little scared, right? (That's what we felt at least.) The tone of Shooting the Moon helps us figure out what's going on with Jamie, and how we should feel about it. Often, there's a very energetic tone, like Jamie is going to explode if she has to wait one more second to share her story with us.
Underneath that, there's a sense of danger lurking in the distance. It feels like something terrible could come out from under the bed at any moment and scare us. We know that TJ is at war; we know Jamie adores TJ; and we know that war is much more complicated than Jamie realizes. Again and again, the tone hints that something bad is about to happen. Just. Around. The. Corner.
Since the book is set during history (that is, real events), but it's about fictitious characters, we call it historical fiction. Sure, this could have happened during the Vietnam War, but there's no proof that it actually did to a girl named Jamie. The cool thing about this approach is that we're not learning about one specific family and their real-life experiences; instead, Jamie and her brood could represent almost any family living through the war. It makes the story much more universal. This accessibility combined with the simple language of a twelve-year-old narrator and main character also puts the book firmly in the YA lit genre.
You've probably figured out by now that the title—Shooting the Moon—hints at TJ's favorite pastime: photography. He loves taking photos of… wait for it… the moon. Why? It has nooks and crannies up there that are super interesting to capture on film.
At first, Jamie doesn't get it. It's a big white ball in the sky. What's so cool about that? She'd rather see TJ's snaps of people since they are far more fascinating. After a while, though, Jamie takes up the torch for her brother with the whole moon thing. It's her way of keeping him alive after he goes missing in Vietnam. Check out what she says about the moon pictures at the end of the novel:
And when he came home, when the war was over, he would look at all the pictures I took of the moon while he was gone, one for every day, even on new-moon days, when the moon hung invisible in the sky, and he would stare at them for almost an hour until he finally said, You got all the ones I missed. But we didn't know that yet. (16.45).
It's only fitting that Jamie keeps her brother's fascination with the moon alive through photography. This allows him to see what he missed while he was a POW in Vietnam, plus TJ gets to see the moon's shadows through someone else's eyes—or should we say lens—for once. Naming the book only focuses our attention on this important symbol.
What's that? You didn't realize the moon was a symbol? Hop on over to the "Symbols" section, stat. We have a bit to say about photography over there, too.
When Jamie is close to wrapping things up, we learn that TJ has gone missing in Vietnam. Wait… what? Instead of telling us all the bits and pieces of what happens to TJ over there, she brings her story to an abrupt end. It's only very briefly that we learn he was taken as a POW. Listen to what she tells us:
And though we didn't know it yet, somewhere in Vietnam my brother, TJ, was waiting in a prisoner-of-war camp, where he would wait for two more years, without a camera, without a pen to write us a letter to let us know where he was or if he was safe. (16.44)
We have a hard time with the ending—it leaves us with so many question. TJ is a POW? How does he survive? What happens to him over there? Those are just a couple of the million questions that run through our heads at this news. Plus, it seems very rushed; after spending so much time with Jamie and her family, we want to learn more about everyone's experience during these two years. But we don't get to.
So what's the deal? We think the story is really meant to be about Jamie, not TJ. After all, she is the protagonist. The ending of the book comes at a time when she's finally learned to acknowledge that she has a complex relationship with war. Even though we might like more deets on TJ's experience, that's really not Jamie's story to tell.
It's all about that base… the army base, that is. Jamie and her family live on the army base so her dad (a.k.a. the Colonel) can do his job. Listen to the way she describes it:
We were stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, a flat piece of real estate that threatened to burst into flames every afternoon from June through September. (2.1)
Charming, right? Okay, not exactly. Her life on the base helps establish Jamie's family as a strict military family—their whole lives are about the army. Her family is only on the base so her dad can work as a colonel in the army. But while Jamie might have lived on army bases all her life, but it's not until the Vietnam War starts that things get sticky.
Let's talk about the war for a minute, shall we? The whole thing started when President Johnson chose to bomb North Vietnam, but needed Congress's approval to do so. (Congress is like the parents in this relationship.) Congress voted and gave the green light, but it was based on poor judgment and misinformation. The bombing raids that followed marked one of many moments where the fighting got worse, instead of stopping all together.
Whether he intended to or not, Johnson had bargained with Congress for war, and he got exactly that: A skirmish that the President expected to win within the year became a full-scale, decade-long struggle known as the Vietnam War. Even worse? The U.S. ultimately lost the war. Jamie might not go into much detail about the war (or none at all) in the book, but as savvy readers, we're supposed to pick up on this context just from the setting.
Lucky for us, Jamie handles the story telling, and since she's a regular twelve year old, we don't get much political jargon or history lessons. In fact, most of her story is about, well, her. She's more interested in what's happening with her own family than she is about waxing political. This leaves us with a comfortable read. War might be raging, but we feel as though we're just chatting with Jamie as she does her thing.
We are like the BFF Jamie never had—or the ones who ditched her when they moved away to different army bases. Jamie talks to us like she knows us; she's incredibly intimate and conversational with us, just like a friend would be. When she has to talk to her dad about keeping Hollister put, Jamie explains to us:
I sat down on the grass beside him and plucked a few blades. I didn't know how to say what I wanted to say. I needed a strategy, but I didn't have one. I knew I was about to ask something impossible. How do you go about doing that? (13.2)
It's as though she's talking directly to us, right? We almost want to answer her with some advice. (Almost.) The style makes it seem like we're very friendly with one another. In the above passage, she basically turns to us for advice. We can't give it, of course, since she's a fictional character in a book, but we want to—the sincerity with which she shares her story and her conversational way of communicating has us practically responding aloud at times.
Not since Margaret Wise Brown said goodnight to the moon has the lunar satellite caught the symbol bug so hard. And let's face it: Rourke ain't subtle about it. Not only is the moon in the title (you don't need to be Sherlock to see that one), it's also, uh, literally everywhere else in the book. Makes sense, given that the moon is literally everywhere in real life, too. No matter where you are at night, clouds permitting, you can see the moon. In Shooting the Moon, it's a heavy-handed but successful way to connect Jamie to her brother who's thousands of miles away.
When she's developing his photos, she tells us:
I discovered that in some of them wispy clouds were sliding by a full moon's eyes, and in others crescent moons stood suspended in the night sky like slivers of light, Venus twinkling beneath them. There were quarter moons and waning gibbous moons, every sort of moon there was, sometimes with stars peeking out from the corner of the frames, sometimes framed by circles of light. (16.6)
Jamie might not get the big deal about the white ball in the sky at first, but soon she comes around. Notice how she thinks of the moon as if it's a person—it has eyes that look right at her. (Fancy literary detour: this is called personification.) This is her way of learning to appreciate how detailed and nuanced things can be up there in the sky.
As Jamie starts examining TJ's photos more closely, she gains a deeper appreciation for them and the moon. She starts to look at the details and grooves of the moon, whereas before, she didn't really get TJ's fascination with it. As the war becomes more real to Jamie, she starts to notice the little things in life more, to pay attention in more nuanced ways, which we see as her appreciation for the moon develops.
Jamie also realizes that the moon is always changing. It goes through different stages all month long, constantly waxing or waning. But the moon is much more than a sign of constancy and change to TJ. Check out what he says about it when Jamie asks why it's so important:
"It's got shadows in it," TJ explained. "From the craters. I think the shadows are interesting. And I like the idea that now there are human footprints on the moon's surface. There's something pretty cool about that." (5.9)
There is something cool about that, especially since the moon landing has basically just happened. For TJ, the moon represents light and dark and their dynamic relationship, as well as the role humans play in nature. Considering the fact that his life is on the line for pretty much the whole book—he stands to have a person kill him before he'd naturally die—this is one powerful symbol for his experience as a soldier.
The idea of walking around with bubblegum stuck to our shirt for two weeks really grosses us out—think of the bacteria, people—but alas, this isn't the case for Jamie. She's thrilled when her bro gives her a makeshift medal for bravery during their game of army. So thrilled, in fact, that she recalls the scene for us:
"It's a medal," TJ explained. "For courage under fire." I wore that medal for two weeks, until the gum finally lost its stick somewhere between the school playground and my second-grade classroom. (2.12)
Ew…so gross. Spit and bacteria aside, though, the medal flat out represents Jamie's strength and courage. All her life, Jamie's been told the army is a big deal; her dad's office is literally lined with medals from battle. So it should come as no surprise that she wants to be just like him when she grows up, military regalia included. It's how people succeed in her family. The medal her brother gives her helps Jamie feel just like a soldier, which is all she's ever wanted to be.
You'd think the moon had a stinkin' selfie stick given how many photos we get of it in the story. Photos are a big deal to both TJ and Jamie. It starts out as a hobby that TJ does to make sightseeing more interesting, but pretty soon it turns into a way for the siblings to communicate with one another. During TJ's absence, he sends his sister rolls of film, which she develops for him. It's a way for him to show her what he wants to share about his experience and for them to stay close despite the miles between them.
Jamie explains that "each little piece of the picture is like part of a puzzle, and the more defined you make everything, the more your picture tells a story" (7.21). We love the idea of a picture being a puzzle (so long as it's not one of those with a billion tiny pieces). Only once the picture gets developed can it be something complete. By developing his pictures, Jamie gets a glimpse of what it's like over in Vietnam through TJ's eyes, bringing her close to her brother rom afar.
We know what you're thinking. A first person (a.k.a. using "I") narrator of a teen book? How original, right? Sigh. Even though that is pretty standard for YA novels, Jamie is definitely different than your average narrator. Did you notice how Jamie is constantly talking about what happens in the future?
For example, she tells us: "We didn't know it yet, but this would become our game for the summer. Once we got started playing gin, it never occurred to us to play anything else" (3.2). Um, okay. It's like she knows the future. Jamie tells us the story like it's already happened instead of living it alongside us while she tells it. Instead, she's looking back, explaining what happened.
The benefit of this model is that we get to learn stuff the characters just wouldn't know at the time. Now we're the ones seeing the future.
When TJ gets sent to fight in the Vietnam War only a few weeks after enlisting in the army, his family is shocked—it happens so soon. Jamie, on the other hand, is thrilled. War is all she and her brother have talked about throughout their lives. This is our initial situation because everyone in the family reacts to it differently: The Colonel might love the war in theory, but that doesn't mean he wants his son shipped off to it right after his eighteenth birthday; and Jamie might think she knows how her army brat family feels about war, but she's not even close.
When TJ's first package from Vietnam arrives, Jamie can barely contain her excitement. And then she discovers what's inside: no letter for her and zero details about the war. Instead all TJ sends her is a roll of film to develop. Gee, thanks. We're calling this our complication because Jamie is forced to deal with her expectations about the war: She wants a letter with the details, but the film shows her what things are really like.
As Jamie keeps developing her brother's film from Vietnam, she starts to realize that some pictures aren't worth showing to her parents. Pics of injured soldiers in wheelchairs don't exactly make for light dinnertime conversation. Meanwhile, she starts to notice that her dad is fed up with the war. All her life, she's known him as Mr. Army Guy, so his frustration throws a wrench in her system. It's a big crisis for her to be forced to think about the war in a new—more tragic—way.
After TJ goes missing in Vietnam, Jamie wants to search for answers, so she looks the only place she can think of: his pictures. Of course there are no clues in TJ's snaps of soldiers and the moon, and Jamie is disappointed. She wants to see her brother again—or at least know the guy is safe. It might not seem like "falling action" material, since it stirs up a lot of sad emotions in Jamie, but in terms of her relationship with the war, this is our event. She's past glorifying it or pretending it's not gruesome and grotesque; finally, she sees the war for what it is and just wants her brother to come home. Wouldn't you?
We're told that TJ comes home after two years in a POW camp over in Vietnam. When Jamie finally sees her brother again, she shows him the pictures of all the moons he missed while he was away. This is our resolution because it brings the family back together again—besides, Jamie finally gets the importance of photographing the moon.