The book A Boy At War by Harry Mazer is the first in a trilogy of books that cover the life of Adam Pelko and how it intersects with American military history. When the story begins, Adam has just started at a new school in Hawaii. Because Adam's father is a Lieutenant in the Navy and must frequently move for work, Adam also frequently moves.
Adam is proud of his father being in the military and wants his father to be proud of him. However, Adam also struggles with the constant moving and with being the new kid. When Adam begins at his new school, his teacher asks him where he is from, and Adam struggles to answer. He says that he is "American" but then worries that he sounded too patriotic. The teacher points out that everyone in Hawaii is American, even though Hawaii was not a state in 1941, when the novel was set. Adam then says that he is from a small town in New York, which is actually where Adam's father is from. This leads to many questions about New York, including those from Davi Mori, a Japanese boy that Adam goes on to become friends with.
This interaction shows the conflicting feelings Adam has at the beginning of the novel. He is proud of what his father does and identifies strongly with him, as when he says his father's hometown is his hometown. However, Adam does not like having to explain himself and can be somewhat sullen and bitter.
As the novel progresses, Adam develops friendships with Davi and with Martin, a native Hawaiian. These friendships cause tension between Adam and his father. Adam's father does not want Adam to be friends with a Japanese boy; he believes that war with Japan is about to occur and that Japanese people are a threat to America. These tensions come to a head when Adam's father forbids Adam from going fishing with Davi. Adam decides to go tell Davi in person that he will not go but then changes his mind and fishes with Davi and Martin. This shows that Adam wants to go beyond the racist views his father has and become a more tolerant person.
Unfortunately, the day the boys go fishing is also the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and the boys see planes fly toward the base. Davi jumps up in the boat, and Adam believes that he is attempting to signal the Japanese planes and must be a Japanese spy. Adam begins fighting Davi until the two are separated by Martin. This incident shows that, despite being friends with Davi, the shock of the attack leads Adam to assume the worst, and he reverts to xenophobic ideologies fairly quickly.
The boys begin rowing to shore, and Adam sees the ship that his father is on get hit by bombs and sink. The boys eventually get to shore safe, though Martin is injured in the process. Adam spends the rest of the day trying to help as much as he can. Adam's response here is informed by his sense of duty and his desire to help others. Adam is very aware that his father might need help, and he wants to be someone who helps and does his duty.
When the attack is over, Adam goes home to tell his mother and sister what has happened, showing how much he values his family. They wait to find out what has happened to Adam's father and eventually hear that he has been declared missing. Although Adam's mother is hopeful that he will return, Adam is certain that he is dead. Adam's response shows how much he is forced to grow following the attack. He wants to take on his father's role and wants to take care of the family.
Adam's mother wants to leave Hawaii for the mainland, and Adam eventually agrees. When they leave, Adam leaves a lei in the water in memory of his father. This shows that Adam has accepted his father's death but also that Adam still has respect for other cultures and traditions, which his father might not have had. Adam has grown into a more adult character, and he is learning to synthesize the sense of patriotism and duty he learned from his father with the tolerance he learned from his friendships in Hawaii.