Fear permeates the Rhode Island coastal town where Robert, his mother, and sister are living out the war with his paternal grandparents: Fear of Nazi submarines offshore. Fear of Abel Hoffman, a German artist living reclusively outside of town. And for Robert, a more personal fear, of his hot-tempered, controlling grandfather.
As Robert watches the townspeople's hostility toward Hoffman build, he worries about his sensitive cousin Elliot's friendship with the artist. And he wonders more and more about the family secret everyone seems to be keeping from him—a secret involving Robert's father, a bomber pilot in Europe. Will Elliot's ability to detach himself from the turmoil around him be enough to sustain him when prejudice and suspicions erupt into violence? And can Robert find his own way to deal with the shocking truth about his family's past?
It is March, 1942, and America has just entered World War II. Robert’s father has left the family farm to fly fighter planes in England, and there’s too much work left for 13-year-old Robert, his mother, and his little sister. When his paternal grandparents invite the threesome to live near them in Rhode Island, it seems like a good solution to their problem. But Robert misses the farm, and wonders why nobody will talk about his father. And when Robert’s cousin, Elliot, starts spending time with a German painter who lives nearby and is thought to be a spy, Robert is forced to make some tough decisions about what he believes and which battles he’s willing to fight. The Horn Book calls this winner of the 2001 Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction “a brilliantly conceived, multi-layered novel . . . engrossing, challenging, and well-paced.”
1. Robert is very disturbed by the fact that the rest of his family will not speak about his father. Why does he find it more difficult to stay silent on this topic than the others do? Why are there no reminders—physical or verbal—of Robert’s father in Grandpa Saunders’ house? Why do you think that Robert and his family stay in Sachem’s Head even after they find out what happened?
2. Elliot’s drawings are what first bring he and Robert together. Why is drawing so important to Elliot? In what ways does it connect him to the rest of the world? In what ways does it separate him? Why is it so important to him that his art be kept secret? Why is it only after Abel’s death that Elliot is able to include himself in his own drawings?
3. Why do you think that Abel Hoffman chose to stay in Sachem’s Head even after the townspeople turned against him? What are the similarities and differences between his experiences there and in Germany. Why do you think he chose to end his life the way he did?
4. Robert is a very forgiving person who doesn’t often pass judgment on others. He never holds Elliot responsible for his quirky behaviors, he forgives his mother for making the decision to leave the farm, and he doesn’t pass judgment on Mike Parini for his false submarine sightings. Why, then, does he find it so difficult to forgive Abel Hoffman for being German? Are there other factors at play here? What happens to change Robert’s mind about Abel? What other characters in the story have people that they can’t forgive?
5. Why is Robert so interested in the tools and tricks of war? Why is it necessary for him to see the big guns being fired? Why are there some aspects of the war, like the service star that his mother hung in the window, that he doesn’t like?
6. Discuss the roles of the various females in Robert’s life. How is his relationship with his mother different than that with his father? In what ways do the women of the household contribute to the secret of his father’s past? What influence does Carolyn’s presence have on Robert’s actions?
7. Abel refers to the red-tailed hawk that stays near his studio as “my always friend.” Why do you think that he chooses this phrase to describe the bird? What does the hawk represent? Do any other characters in the story have this sort of “always friend?”
8. What does Robert’s father mean when he refers to “wing room?” Why is this such an important concept to both Robert and his father? From whom do they need this space?
9. What is meant by “the art of keeping cool?” To whom does this phrase refer in the book? Who has actually mastered this art?
Research and Projects
1. Wartime rationing is mentioned several times throughout the book. Find out what sorts of materials were rationed during World War II, and how this rationing might affect a family the size of your own. Would you be able to get by on these reduced rations? Try to spend a day adhering to these rules.
2. Abel Hoffman paints in the abstract expressionist style. Find some examples of this type of painting. Perhaps you can arrange a visit to an art museum to view some expressionist works in person.
3. During World War II, many famous and influential people left Germany to live and work in the United States. Research and report on one of these wartime immigrants. Be sure to find out when they came to the United States, why, and how they were received here.
4. Elliot likes to draw the things that frighten or disturb him because then they get “caught . . . [they] can’t get you . . . you’ve got [them] down on paper.” Draw a picture of something that worries you and see if you can “catch” it on paper. Try using different styles (caricature, abstract art, etc.) to see if they can change your feelings about the subject.
5. Everyone in Sachem’s Head is worried about the German submarines that were attacking ships just off the coast. Investigate these sorts of attacks during World War II. Were our ships in danger of being attacked by German subs? What could be done to locate and stop enemy submarines?
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Janet Taylor Lisle’s books for young readers have received the Newbery Honor Award (Afternoon of the Elves), the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction (The Art of Keeping Cool), Holland’s Zilveren Griffel, and Italy’s Premio Andersen Award, among other honors. A graduate of Smith College and former journalist, Janet lives in Rhode Island and often draws on Rhode Island history in her work. Visit her online at JanetTaylorLisle.com.