Prelude to Reveille by S. D. Sawyer

The book cover blurb informs us that S.D. Sawyer’s first novel, Prelude to Reveille: A Vietnam Awakening (CreateSpace, 398 pp., $15.95, paper), is about “the waiting wife experience during the Vietnam War.” That was a new category of novel to me, although it shouldn’t have been.

I served in the Army in Vietnam. I was married at the time, and my wife was home in Seattle. I’d never thought of her as a “waiting wife,” so I looked forward to reading this book to see how the waiting wife did or did not resemble the wife of mine who was in Seattle while I served in Vietnam.

Disclaimer: I wrote a book about that experience, In the Army Now,(published by Burning Cities Press), which (like this book) is written in alternating sections in which the stories of each of the characters are told to the reader.

Because I tried to do that very difficult feat in my novel, I am inclined to be compassionate toward this author, her book, and the main characters, Meg and Tom Barrington. I recognize how hard it is to be fair to one’s characters and to make their experiences come alive. Sawyer does a good job of doing this.

Meg is a schoolteacher and Tom is a lieutenant in the Army. He joined up to avoid being drafted. His recruiter promised that he’d get to choose his MOS—that old familiar story.

Tom believed the recruiter, who had lied to him, and ended up Infantry.  Surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle would say.

The alternating stories of the two characters are told masterfully and are both equally interesting. Do not sell this author short because she is female and not a veteran. She does a great job with the Vietnam War sections and both the action and the language are realistic and are not for the squeamish.

If you don’t believe me about the language, turn to page 287 when you buy this book, which I recommend to all who wish to read a novel that deals with both sides of the story of a married couple dealing with the Vietnam War. To make things even more challenging, Meg is pregnant while Tom is gone.

The section of the book on how the army hospital handles her delivery is not for the sensitive. It really nails how unenlightened that era was in its treatment of women. Sawyer pulls no punches in this section—or in any of the others that show the Army’s ancient codes at work. She is fair minded, though, and does point out the things the Army did right.

I’d forgotten what life in the 1960s was like; this book lays it out and nails it down. Certain kinds of middle class white people had their lives prescribed for them by the codes and rules that were fast breaking down in the greater society.  For one thing, Army officer wives were not even allowed to wear miniskirts, if you can imagine that.

We encounter the usual stuff that we find in Vietnam War novels that deal with the return to America. The “baby killer” thing is mentioned five separate times. I admit it—I feel sort of left out. I never was called a baby killer one time, nor was I spat upon.

I was at the University of Washington finishing up a degree at the same time Tom Barrington was finishing up his senior year. This was in 1970, the time of the Kent State killings and Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia.

I was heavily involved in antiwar demonstrations so it was interesting to get Meg Barrington’s point of view on all of that stuff. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. So it knocked me for a loop to read that Tom Barrington was crushed by what was going on and that it made it difficult for him to go to the campus each day to take his classes. It makes sense to me now, but at the time, I had not one thought about it.

S.D. Sawyer

The author makes the point that Tom chose to continue to look military even after he left the Army; i.e. he kept his short haircut. It is beyond me why anyone would have done that. Maybe he thought he was being true to himself or to the men he left behind in Vietnam.

It was also eye-opening to read of Meg Barrington’s frantic attempts to find counseling for her returned veteran husband and that nothing was available. The VFW,  the American Legion, the VA, and the churches had nothing going for veterans who needed or wanted counseling.

My memory of approaching the VFW was that I was told they had room there only for veterans of “real wars.” I got the point.

Most Vietnam vets figured out pretty quickly that they were not welcome at the VFW or the other organizations dominated by “old farts” of the World War II generation. Some of us swore we would not treat the veterans of America’s next wars like that.

That, by the way, is where Vietnam Veterans of America’s Founding Principle comes from: “Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.”

Both of the main characters in this novel, Meg and Tom, came alive for me and I cared about both of them. I wished I had access to them and could knock their heads together and tell Tom how to make things easier for himself on campus and Meg to back off and let Tom find his way, to not be so hard on him about the souvenir gun he brought back from the war.

But, of course, I could not do that. Folks in novels (and in real life) have to be left alone to bumble along. It’s painful, but there is its. Don’t mean nothin’, as the novel tells us more than once.

I highly recommend this novel, both as a good read and as a glimpse into the lives of tormented souls, good souls who struggle to get through a tormented time and stay strong in their love.

It’s not a certainty that veterans and their wives will make it. Part of the butcher’s bill of war is the death of relationships. Sawyer demonstrates that sad fact well in this solid novel of awakening and self-discovery.

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

—David Willson

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