Excerpt from Girl at War by Sara Novic, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Girl at War

by Sara Novic

Girl at War by Sara Novic X
Girl at War by Sara Novic
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  • First Published:
    May 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2016, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Print Excerpt



My classmates and I often met for football matches on the east side of the park, where the grass had fewer lumps. I was the only girl who played football, but sometimes other girls would come down to the field to jump rope and gossip.

"Why do you dress like a boy?" a pigtailed girl asked me once.

"It's easier to play football in pants," I told her. The real reason was that they were my neighbor's clothes and we couldn't afford anything else.

We began collecting stories. They started out with strings of complex relationships—my best friend's second cousin, my uncle's boss—and whoever kicked the ball between improvised (and ever-negotiable) goal markers got to tell their story first. An unspoken contest of gore developed, honoring whoever could more creatively describe the blown-out brains of their distant acquaintances. Stjepan's cousins had seen a mine explode a kid's leg, little bits of skin clinging to grooves in the sidewalk for a week afterward. Tomislav had heard of a boy who was shot in the eye by a sniper in Zagora; his eyeball had turned to liquid like a runny egg right there in front of everyone.

At home my mother paced the kitchen talking on the phone to friends in other towns, then hung out the window, passing the news to the next apartment building over. I stood close while she discussed the mounting tensions on the banks of the Danube with the women on the other side of the clothesline, absorbing as much as I could before running off to find my friends. A citywide spy network, we passed on any information we overheard, relaying stories of victims whose links to us were becoming less and less remote.

On the first day of school, our teacher took attendance and found one of our classmates missing.

"Anyone hear from Zlatko?" she said.

"Maybe he went back to Serbia, where he belongs," said Mate, a boy I'd always found obnoxious. A few people snickered and our teacher shushed them. Beside me, Stjepan raised his hand.

"He moved," Stjepan said.

"Moved?" Our teacher flipped through some papers on her clipboard. "Are you sure?"

"He lived in my building. Two nights ago I saw his family carrying big suitcases out to a truck. He said they had to leave before the air raids started. He said to tell everyone goodbye." The class erupted into high-strung chatter at this news:

"What's an air raid?"

"Who will be our goalie now?"

"Good riddance to him!"

"Shut up, Mate," I said.

"Enough!" said our teacher. We quieted. An air raid, she explained, was when planes flew over cities and tried to knock buildings down with bombs. She drew chalky maps denoting shelters, listed the necessities our families should bring underground with us: AM radio, water jug, flashlight, batteries for the flashlight. I didn't understand whose planes wanted what buildings to explode, or how to tell a regular plane from a bad one, though I was happy for the reprieve from regular lessons. But soon she began to swipe at the board, inciting an angry cloud of eraser dust. She let out a sigh as if she were impatient with air raids, brushing the settling chalk away from the pleats in her skirt. We moved on to long division, and were not offered a time for asking questions. It happened when I was running errands for my mother. I was supposed to get milk, which came in slippery plastic bags that wiggled during any attempt at pouring or gripping, and I'd rigged a cardboard box to my bike's handlebars to carry the uncooperative cargo. But all the stores nearest our flat had run out—stores were running out of everything now—and I commissioned Luka to join the quest. Expanding the search, we ventured deeper into the city. The first plane flew so low Luka and I swore later to anyone who would listen that we'd seen the pilot's face. I ducked, my handlebars twisting beneath me, and fell from my bike. Luka, who'd been looking skyward but had forgotten to stop pedaling, crashed into my wreckage and landed facedown, cutting his chin on the cobblestone. We scrambled to our feet, adrenaline overriding pain as we tried to right our bikes. Then the alarm. The grained crackle of shoddy audio equipment. The howl of the siren, like a woman crying out through a megaphone. We ran. Across the street and through the side alleys. "Which one's closest?" Luka called over the noise. I visualized the map on the blackboard at school, stars and arrows marking different paths. "There's one underneath the kindergarten." Beneath the slide of our first playground, a set of cement steps led to a steel door, triple-thick, as fat as a dictionary. Two men held the door open and people funneled from all directions down into the shadows. Reluctant to leave our bicycles to fend for themselves in the impending doom, Luka and I dropped them as close to the entrance as possible. The shelter smelled of mold and unwashed bodies. When my eyes adjusted I surveyed the room. There were bunk beds, a wooden bench near the door, and a generator bicycle in the far corner. My classmates and I would come to fight over the bike in subsequent raids, elbowing one another for a turn converting pedals into the electricity that powered the lights in the shelter. But the first time we barely noticed it. We were occupied with surveying the odd collection of people seized from their daily activities and smashed together in a Cold War lair. I studied the group closest to me: men in business suits, or coveralls and mechanics' jackets like my father's, women in pantyhose and pencil skirts. Others in aprons with babies at their hips. I wondered where my mother and Rahela were; there was no public shelter near our building. Then I heard Luka calling for me and realized we'd been separated by an influx of newcomers. I felt my way in his direction, identifying him by the outline of his unruly hair.

From the book Girl at War by Sara Novi?. Copyright © 2015 by Sara Novi?. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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