The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
By Steve Sheinkin
Published 2014 by Roaring Brook Press
A huge explosion at the Port Chicago Navy base during World War II set the scene for an epic trial over civil rights. 50 African-American were charged with mutiny after refusing to return to their job of loading ammunition. The penalty for mutiny was execution.
Well, awards season for youth literature is under way and, despite my promises to myself, I have a hard time not getting caught up in it. From the moment the Excellence in Non-Fiction and Morris Award shortlists were announced, I've had my eye on tracking down and reading the titles - of which I'd read none! Thinking about all the other books I've got on my plate and my resolution to try to clear out the books I own, I'm going to try - really, really try - to not read all the books on the shortlists. I started with this one, though.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bomb, Sheinkin's multiple award-winning earlier title, though it also scared the crap out of my for the future of our world. I'd been hearing great things about his latest work of non-fiction for young people all year, so I wasn't surprised to see it make the shortlist and I looked forward to reading it for myself. Upon finishing, I'm struggling a bit with my feelings toward it.
The story is an important one - one I knew nothing about prior to embarking on the reading experience. It's absolutely mind-blowing to read about the struggle for civil rights, particularly when I think about how far we still have to go for true equality. The Navy's stance throughout this book was just appalling, yet unfortunately, not terribly surprising. I was sad to learn that the Navy is still not interested in reopening the case of the Port Chicago 50, even though all of them are now deceased.
But, I just didn't engage with this story as much as I did with Bomb. I think some of this can be attributed to the disjointed way in which I read this book, picking it up here and there around the house, without any true longing to be reading it. Additionally, and maybe this is also just me, I was disappointed to get to that final chapter and discover that all of the Port Chicago 50 were deceased, meaning that Sheinkin had never actually interacted with them himself. I suppose this must be true of the players in Bomb as well, but I felt it more jarring with this title for some reason.
I still think there's no denying that this is an excellent work of non-fiction for youth and one that I would love to see incorporated into curriculum reading. It just didn't grab me as I hoped it would.