An Atheneum Guide for Reading Groups
CRACKER!: THE BEST DOG IN VIETNAM
By Cynthia Kadohata
ABOUT THE BOOK
Cracker, a prize German shepherd, once belonged to a boy named Willie, but now belongs to the U.S. military, which has trained her to sniff out bombs, traps, and the enemy. She never believes that she will find a master as loving as Willie until she meets seventeen-year-old Rick Hanski, an army private in basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Rick enlisted in the military knowing that he would go to Vietnam, but he never intended to go as a dog handler. To U-Haul, Rick's sergeant, Cracker and Rick are an unlikely pair, but when they get to Vietnam, they become a team and are sent on dangerous search-and-rescue missions, often in the "point" position. In one deadly battle, Rick and Cracker are separated, and Rick receives a serious wound and a ticket home. When he arrives at his parents' house in Wisconsin, he finds that he is a changed man, and the only way that he can ever be at peace with himself is to be reunited with his best friend -- Cracker.
ACTIVITIES BEFORE READING
Have students look at a time line of the United States' involvement in Vietnam (http://www.pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam/timeline/index4.html). Engage them in a discussion about the difference between a conflict and a war. At what point did the Vietnam conflict become the Vietnam War?
Willie knows that if he doesn't find someone to adopt Cracker, he will have to give her to the pound. Then he reads that the army needs dogs to go to Vietnam. Why is the pound worse for Cracker than going to war? Discuss why Cracker is especially suitable as a war dog. Cracker's name as a puppy was Magnificent Dawn of Venus. How does Cracker live up to her original name?
Rick's sister, Amy, graduated from MIT. His parents always felt that she had a "calling," but Rick, who wasn't a good student, was expected to work in the family's hardware store. Explain how Rick's jealousy of his sister's accomplishments contributes to his eventual success as a dog handler in Vietnam. Why does Rick's father agree to sign the papers for him to join the army?
Rick arrives at Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training with an attitude -- he wants to "whip the world." What is the toughest lesson Rick learns in basic training? Discuss why Rick is written up for "lack of tact and diplomacy." What does Cracker teach Rick about diplomacy?
The military sees the war dogs as specialized equipment. How are the dogs trained? Discuss the difference between a scout dog and a tracker. Why is the military only interested in scout dogs?
In the beginning, it is doubtful that Cracker is going to make it through training. Why is Rick upset with the army for assigning him to Cracker? At what point does Rick realize that Cracker is indeed going to become "the best dog in Vietnam"? Willie use to feel invincible when he was walking with Cracker. How does Cracker make Rick feel invincible?
Rick is disappointed that he doesn't win a trophy at the end of dog training. Discuss how winning isn't always about getting trophies. How does Rick win in the end? What is Rick's ultimate trophy?
Rick's parents taught him about fairness. How does basic training teach him about politics? Discuss how Rick uses politics to get Cracker returned to the United States.
Explain what the sergeant means when he says, "There are (Viet Cong) everywhere and nowhere." (p. 113) Why does this make the Vietnam War an especially difficult one to fight? Discuss Rick's thoughts the first time he and Cracker are taken into a "hot zone." How do he and Cracker become "dog and man -- one creature"?
Rick is a little nervous when he and Cracker are sent on a secret mission. Discuss what Camel means when he says, "I wouldn't want to go with anyone who wasn't." (p. 178) Rick and Cracker are assigned the "point" position. Discuss how this is an especially dangerous position. How does "walking point" give Rick a sense of importance?
Rick sees courage, but he also feels it. What might he say is the most courageous act that he witnessed? Debate whether these acts of courage change his desire to "whip the world."
What happens if Rick doesn't read Cracker correctly? He says that a misread would make him feel guilty for the rest of his life. Discuss the relationship between responsibility and guilt. Describe Rick's feelings of guilt when Cracker is lost. Why does Rick feel that he owes it to Cracker to wear his uniform when he goes to pick her up in Chicago?
Compare and contrast Cracker's relationship with Willie and Rick. Discuss why it would have been difficult for Cracker to become Willie's dog again. What makes Rick invite Willie to Cracker's homecoming?
After basic training, Rick goes home for a visit before he deploys to Vietnam. Discuss why he doesn't feel comfortable in his old room. When Rick returns from the war, he knows that he doesn't belong in his parents' house. How is this symbolic of his journey to manhood?
RESEARCH AND ACTIVITIES
Ask students to read "Seeking to honor America's four-footed soldiers" by Lisa Hoffman (www.vdhaonline.org/Honor.aspx). Then have them write a brief essay called "Dogs as Soldiers."
Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper for the U.S. military, features news of interest to troops stationed all over the world. Write a feature story that might have appeared in Stars and Stripes about Cracker and Rick's reunion. Include background information such as their training at Fort Benning, and their missions in Vietnam.
Malaria is one of the infectious diseases that threatened the U.S. troops in Vietnam. Refer students to the Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/malaria/faq.htm) for information about the cause and prevention of malaria, and how the disease is treated. Make a brochure that might have been given to the troops that answers some of their questions about the disease.
Willie's favorite cousin, Derrick, was drafted, but Rick Hanski volunteered for the military. Find out about the Military Draft. When was it started? What was the purpose? When did the government abolish the draft? Look at the various Draft Board Classifications (www.landscaper.net/draft.htm). What is significant about the draft lottery that occurred on December 1, 1969? Why is it likely that Rick would have eventually been drafted?
Willie's father supported the Vietnam War, but his mother didn't. Research the reasons why so many Americans disapproved of the war. Pick one point of view, and write an editorial that might have appeared in a major U.S. city newspaper on April 30, 1975, the day the last American soldiers left Vietnam.
Take a virtual field trip of the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia (www.infantry.army.mil/museum.htm). Take notice of the exhibits that deal specifically with the Vietnam War. Write a letter that Rick might write to the commanding general of Fort Benning asking that a special exhibit be created to honor the dogs of the Vietnam War.
Design a postcard called "Soldiers of Democracy" that might be sold in the store of the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cynthia Kadohata is the author of the Newbery Award winner and New York Times bestseller Kira-Kira, her debut novel for children. She has published fiction for adults, including The Floating World, for which she was named a Whiting Fellow. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker, Grand Street Magazine, and Ploughshares. A graduate of the University of Southern California, she has taken graduate courses in writing at the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. A great deal of Cynthia's writing inspiration comes from her travels across America: As a child, her family lived in Georgia and Arkansas before settling in Chicago, and as an adult, she explored the states on a Greyhound bus. She currently lives with her son in California. Weedflower, a novel about the Japanese internment camps, was published by Atheneum in 2006. Cracker is her third novel for young readers.