The Reunion by Dan Walsh

The information on the book jacket of The Reunion (Revell, 304 pp., $14.99, paper) indicates that Dan Walsh is an award-winning author of several novels and is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers. He has also served as a pastor for 25 years.

There is no mention of military service. Inside the book, in the Author’s Note, Walsh addresses that issue. “The Vietnam War ended before I became old enough to be eligible,” he says.  Earlier he writes: “I am not a vet. I have never served in the military.”  Walsh further makes it clear that he wrote this book to honor Vietnam veterans.

Walsh dedicates his book to his son Isaac and to “all the military veterans who have served our country, now and over the years. Those of us who’ve never served owe you a debt we will never fully comprehend or be able to repay.”

This is a novel about Aaron Miller, who, as Walsh puts it, was “once honored for his heroism.”  Walsh does not make it clear initially what this honor was, but soon enough he tells us that Miller received what Walsh sometimes calls “the Congressional Medal of Honor.”  At other times, Walsh calls it by the correct name, “the Medal of Honor.”

Miller is working in a trailer park as a handyman and living in a shed lighted by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The author makes it clear on the first page that Aaron Miller has issues related to the Vietnam War. “Even forty years later, Aaron was afraid of jungles.”  By the third page of the novel the reader knows that Miller suffers “pains from old war wounds.”

Before too long, we’re given clues that Miller received some unspecified but very high military award he keeps with him in a metal box about the size of a hardcover book. Even when Miller was homeless and lived in cardboard boxes, it was one thing he hung onto. The other thing was a faded Polaroid photograph of his two kids when they were toddlers.

There’s another Vietnam veteran in this trailer park, Billy, who lost both legs to a Bouncing Betty. Billy is afraid of his own shadow and barely functional until Aaron Miller befriends him. In Billy, Aaron Miller as met someone more afraid of jungles than he is.

The reader soon finds out in detail why Miller is afraid of jungles.   Chapter 16, which is headed “February 9, 1969, Near the Song Da Krong Valley, Vietnam,” begins the part of this book that amounts to a Vietnam War novel.  Walsh puts us up to our ears in a story of Marines at war.

Then the novel turns into a mystery of sorts, when a reporter, Dave Russo, is hired by one of the men Miller had saved in Vietnam when he earned that Medal of Honor that the author is at first so coy about naming.  It becomes quite an engrossing mystery novel for a long while.

Dan Walsh

Of course, we the readers know exactly who Aaron Miller is and where he is and what he is doing. That fact sets off a dynamic tension in the narrative. Will Russo find Miller before something awful happens to Miller?  As we read on, we fear that there’s a good chance something terrible will happen.

There’s plenty in  this book about how awful Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home—the usual “no parade” stuff, as well as the fact that the general public treated us like outcasts. I tried hard to remember if that was my perception at the time, back in 1967 when I came home from Vietnam. It really wasn’t.

The general public and I didn’t intersect much. On the other hand, I did feel that the “outcast” treatment from my family and their friends, those half or a whole generation older than I.

Reading this book did cause me to confront the homecoming-reception issue and cogitate on it. I remember a parade in Seattle in the 1970s that welcomed back Vietnam veterans, but only barely. I never much cared for parades.

Many comparisons are made in this book between World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans. The author even states that he got the idea for the book from news stories he had read about Medal of Honor recipients from World War II who went on to live their lives in anonymity as janitors and the like. He decided to change them to Vietnam veterans to honor them.

My extensive reading of World War II literature has led me to believe that veterans of that conflict were not honored all that much more than veterans of my dirty little war. Walsh’s Christian point-of-view in this book does promote in the reader a need to contemplate the serious issues he brings up.

The plot is manipulative but serviceable. It twists and turns and provides a lot of romance of a very mild sort. The book is set in the fall and winter, so Thanksgiving and Christmas figure prominently in the story line. The beautifully designed cover has a Christmas season feel to it, as it features a red trailer that looks like a Christmas present set in a field of greenery.

If a reader is looking for a positive book featuring Vietnam veterans who have lost their way but found redemption, love, and acceptance before the final curtain, this is a book for you. I warn you, though, there are a few passages and episodes that could provoke sentimental tears. That is not a bad thing.

John Wayne gets one mention in the book, but not in a good way. Nor are there any rude expressions in this book. So if you are looking for Marines who talk Marine-talk and go on and on about “ham and mother fuckers,” this not the book for you. The author’s decision to avoid such language gives the Vietnam War section a slightly generic tone.

Also, if you are a person who is annoyed at product placement, you will have to show self-control because Panera’s, Cracker Barrel, Chili’s, Starbucks, and Benedryl get frequent mentions, as does Diet Coke.

Walsh is an assured story teller and convinces me that he knows the territory well of the trailer park world he presents in his book. It is located in North Florida, along the Suwanee River, about thirty miles east of Gainesville.

While I was reading his book, I also believed in the characters. It was not until I put the book down that I realized that most of the people we encounter in the book are much too good to be true. Sometimes it is a pleasant thing to read a book with kind, well-meaning characters in it.

I kept expecting to encounter the one bad character in the novel again, but once the hero, Aaron Miller, causes him to depart the trailer park early on, we never see him again. I found myself missing him.

The author’s website is http://danwalshbooks.com

—David Willson

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