“The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody” by Matthew Landis is a lovely story about a seventh-grade-boy learning what is important about life, war, and love. The book might ignite a passion for history in the heart of its readers. It’s obvious that the author has that passion, and he communicates it in each and every page. It’s also obvious that Landis really “gets” middle grade students, especially those who don’t always fit in.
Oliver is the main character, and he’s kind of a loner. He only has one friend, and he’s not even sure that Kevin is really a friend. They just kind of eat lunch together. When he’s unwillingly paired with Ella for a history project, he’s devastated. Not only is she known as the class slack-off, but he really wants to do the project alone. It’s about the Civil War, and if anyone knows all about that war, it’s Oliver. He lives and breathes Civil War. He does Civil War enactments on weekends. Even his teacher admits that Oliver knows more than most social studies teachers about that war.
The worst is when they are assigned to do a project on Private Raymond Stone. Oliver wanted to do his project on an important Civil War figure, not some nobody. Heaping indignity on indignity, Stone died of dysentery. He was no hero.
But what Oliver’s friends (yes, Ella and Kevin end up being his friends) show him is that war is not just about the generals and the grand battles. It’s about the actual people who lived and suffered through the wars. And yes, even those who died of disease and not in battle. Oliver doesn’t just learn about Private Stone, he also uncovers a mystery about why Stone enlisted in a regiment that wasn’t from his home town.
But what he learns that overshadows everything else is a set of real life values that were deeply held 150 years ago and are deeply held now — values about the importance of family and friends and kindness to others.
Middle grade readers will really like this book. The characters are carefully crafted and likable. Each character is flawed, but each one overcomes that flaw by the end of the story (not totally, but realistically). This would be a great read aloud during a study of the Civil War to encourage discussions about those who suffered the most in war — those on the front lines, the “expendable” men who die by the thousands during war, the “nobodies.”
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Dial, the publisher, for review purposes.