Shades of Gray

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by Carolyn Reeder. Novel. 160 pages. Grades 5-8.
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Review

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Twelve year old Will Page is a grieving and angry boy when Doctor Martin takes him to his relatives in the Piedmont region of Virginia. Will's family in Winchester, Virginia has been wiped out in the Civil War. His father fought bravely in the Confederate Army, his sisters died of a disease that Will is convinced was carried by the Yankees and his mother died soon afterward. That's why Will is grieving; his anger is directed at the Union Army, of course, but also at the uncle with whom he is to live. Uncle Jed refused to take sides in the war and Will's family considered him a traitor and a coward, a feeling shared by most of Jed's neighbors.

Working along side his uncle, Will comes to a begrudging admiration of his skill and wisdom. It is late in the book before he begins to understand that the price his uncle and his family paid for their beliefs was almost as great as the one Will's family paid.

Will's family had slaves and, although they treated them kindly as compared to many slave owners, the slaves did all the real work on the plantation. Will is not used to manual labor and now, living with his aunt , uncle and cousin who share what little they have with him gladly, his pride will not let him admit to weariness or dismay.

This is a well told story of the time just after the Civil War and not hard to read. Most fifth graders could handle it easily.

Characters

Will Page: Orphaned boy of twelve whose parents had owned slaves and whose family fought bravely for the Confederacy. He is horrified at having to live with his aunt and uncle when he feels that their neutral stand during the war was caused by cowardice. Their life is hard and Will's pride will not let him take charity so he must work equally hard doing unfamiliar farm work.

Uncle Jed: A quiet, gentle and wise man. His family has suffered because of his refusal to aid the Confederate cause and he has been shunned by friends and family alike as a traitor and coward. His courage is only apparent to Will near the end of the story.

Meg Jones: Will's cousin and Jed's daughter. She is smart, hardworking and very loving. She stands up to the bullies, especially with Will's help. She longs to learn to read but the school has been destroyed during the war and her mother lacks the time to teach her.

Aunt Ella: Jed's wife and Meg's mother. She's warm, outgoing and forgiving. She was hurt when her letters to Will's mother came back unopened and welcomes Will to what little she has.

Jim Woodley: A Yankee soldier whom the Jones's befriend after the war, giving him shelter and food for a week while he gets strong enough to return to his home. It is Jim who causes Will to question whether all the right was on one side during the war.

Doctor Martin: The doctor of Will's family and their friend. At the beginning of the book he regrets not being able to offer Will a home with him. Later, when he does, Will is not so anxious to be rid of the Joneses.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • What do you think of the way Will and Meg handle the bullies?

  • Also, how about the way Uncle Jed handles the animosity from the townspeople?

  • What role do pacifists play in society?

  • What are some other unpopular stands on issues?

  • How do you notice the gradual change in Will’s attitude about the war?

  • What signs are there of Will's growing admiration for the Joneses?

  • Was Will’s family’s treatment of slaves was typical or even common?
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Activities

  • While the pacifism in Shades of Gray took place during the Civil War, every conflict has had its protesters and students might like to look at the role pacifism and anti-war protests have had in our history. Viewing news footage or reading accounts of the Iraq War protests might be a worthwhile activity in order to bring such conflicts into closer range.

  • Research famous pacifists around the world.

  • Can you find out where your ancestors were and whether or not they took part in the Civil War?

  • Find out about the battles of the Civil War that Will would have been nearest in Winchester, Virginia.

  • Sing some songs that were popular then.

  • For more Civil War activities see our article about The Civil War.
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Related Books

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    Grades 4 - 8
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    Brady's father is a minister and prepares his sermons in a cabin near the house. One day Brady, whose previous behavior has not shown much maturity, discovers that his father is hiding a runaway slave there. Now, Brady's previous inability to keep a secret becomes a real liability. Brady's courageous deeds later prove himself worthy of the trust his father places in him.

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    Lincoln : A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. Biography. 160 pages.
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    Freedman received the Newbery Award for this masterful biography of Lincoln. Amply illustrated, the narrative moves smoothly. The complicated nature of the naturally witty storyteller and astute politician at times overwhelmed by melancholly was as puzzling to his contemporaries as it is to the readers of this biography, most of whom will never have read as well-balanced a presidential portrait as this is.

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    Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry. Short Novel. 128 pages.
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    My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln & Christopher Collier. Novel. 240 pages.
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    When Sam Meeker joins the rebel forces during the American Revolution, it places strains on his family who have Tory sympathies and live in a Tory town. Tim, the younger brother, takes on great responsibilities as his father is imprisoned and dies, neighbors are killed, and Sam, although innocent, is executed by the revolutionary forces. The book presents the evil side of war and the ultimate emptiness of its slogans, on both sides.

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    Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. Novel. 310 pages.
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