In interpreting a literary work, what seems “new” about it will depend on each reader’s previous experience so there are numerous, subjective ways to the answer this question. Many readers probably were relatively unfamiliar with the details of life in Hawaii in the early 1940s, so they are likely to gain information about that place and period. In addition, A Boy at War emphasizes the experiences of children rather than adults, reminding us that war affects people of all ages.
Adam Pelko, the 14-year-old protagonist, is strongly influenced by his father, who serves in the military. The family are white, European Americans. When the Japanese military attacks Pearl Harbor and bombs the U.S.S. Arizona, Adam’s father is aboard the ship. Although he is not injured, his friend Martin is; further, the reality of war is suddenly thrust upon Adam as he realizes the danger his father faces and wonders if he was among the victims. The book also conveys the chaotic atmosphere around the attack and the decisions that all Americans had to make.
Adam’s experiences with his family and friends are also probably different than those of people living almost 80 years later. In particular, the racial tensions in Hawaii are strongly exacerbated by the Japanese military actions. People of Japanese heritage constituted a significant portion of Hawaii’s population. There had been anti-Asian, specifically anti-Japanese racism in the United States before the country entered the war, which is shown by Adam’s father discouraging him from associating with Japanese American children. The book also shows how much these sentiments, and related behaviors, intensified after the attack. The challenge of remaining open-minded is shown by Adam’s ambivalent attitude toward his friend Davi, who is Japanese American. Desperately afraid and feeling the need for a scapegoat, Adam attacks his friend. As many other Americans also did in those years, he later struggles to find ways to prevent the war from destroying their friendship.