Twelve-year-old Gabe lives with his Uncle Vernon, a Vietnam vet, in this contemporary middle school book. One day he comes home from school and finds the body of his uncle on the floor. He doesn’t call the police because he’s afraid they’ll put him in a foster home. He spent eight years bouncing around in the foster care system until he found a real home with his uncle. Gabe settled into Vernon’s reclusive life and grew to love the crusty old man. But now he’s dead.
The next day after school he returns home and sees that his uncle’s body is gone. Now he fears that the police will think he murdered Uncle Vernon and hid the body.
In the mailbox he finds an unsigned letter: “I have a secret. Do not be afraid.” The letters continue, but the writer’s identity remains a mystery. Gabe sticks with his plan not to tell anyone, but life gets complicated. He has to forge his uncle’s signature on all kinds of school forms and take money from his uncle’s cash box for food, carefully keeping a strict tally. The worst is that he can’t tell his best friend or his favorite teacher.
After several weeks the body is discovered and Gabe’s plan to live alone unravels. Now the police, the social worker, and Gabe’s teachers are involved and his fate is in their hands.
Gabe’s past, except for the two years with Uncle Vernon, have made him shy and distrustful. But he shows resilience and integrity as he handles the difficult situation, making it easy for us to like him. This middle school book will also awaken empathy in the reader for soldiers returning from war. Although Uncle Vernon is deceased when the story begins, he becomes a vivid character because of Gabe’s memories of him. When the social worker first brought Gabe over, he called his uncle “sir.” “No, no,” answered Vernon. “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m no ‘sir.’ They can save all they’s fancy sirs and salutin’ for the dress parade. No, life’s a jungle, there’s no use for sirs in the jungle.” He taught Gabe how to use tools, including a power saw; helped him make a tree swing; and when he had the flu, nursed him with a potent herbal mixture he learned from an old Vietnamese woman.
As I read, I wondered if the identity of the letter-writer could live up to the mystery surrounding him, but I wasn’t disappointed. Instead, I was deeply moved. This wonderful book touched my heart.
Author Audrey Shafer works at the Veterans’ Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System and in her acknowledgments, she thanks the veterans whose sacrifices, empathy, and trust inspired this book.
Age level: 10 and up. One scene of wartime violence, very necessary to the story.