Nothing in the title of Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang (Willow Stream, 392 pp., $15.95, paper) signals that this is a book dealing with the Vietnam War. Scrutiny of the cover reveals a tiny helicopter silhouetted against a setting sun. In the lower left hand corner, a woman with long black hair clad in a white dress faces away from us. She probably represents the heroine of the novel, the beautiful Vietnamese widow, Lien.
The back cover tells us: “From the jungles of Vietnam, through the minefields of the heart, Once Upon a Mulberry Field, follows one man’s journey to self-discovery.” This man is Roger Connors, an American. C.L. Hoang, the author, was born and raised in South Vietnam during the war, and came to the United States in the 1970s. He is an electronics engineer. This is his first novel, and it is a project from his heart.
Roger Connors, “fresh out of medical school,” gets his Air Force commission, and arrives at the 3rd Tac Dispensary at Bien Hoa Air Base as a general medical officer during “the sweltering summer of 1967.” I was at Bien Hoa that summer and it was no more or less sweltering than usual. Connors goes on to tell us that this “unexpected” event “had conspired to drop me here at the heart of a brutal conflict I wanted no part of.” Few of us did.
This book was a frustrating read for me, but not because it was badly written or that Hoang got the details wrong. In fact, he fully inhabits the American doctor he created as his main character. He also is pitch perfect with details, both about military life and about life in America.
Hoang’s’description of street traffic in 1967 Saigon, for example, is spot on, and his comment that “the uneasy feeling of death is on the lurk” captured the tone of that time and place.
Hoang includes references to Gen. William Westmoreland, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and John Wayne. Bob Hope’s Christmas Show and a visit by LBJ are alluded to, and the short timer calendar is explained. There also is this about American military superiority: “With such superior technology at the disposition of our well-trained and disciplined troops, does anyone doubt we can wrap up this nasty business in a timely fashion?”
Antiwar protestors are castigated—something of a trend in the current crop of Vietnam War memoirs and novels. The protestors are said to harass returning troops because the have gone crazy with anger and frustration at the war. The protestors boo and hiss the troops and call them Baby Killers. They hurl rocks, spit on them, and even throw red paint on the hapless returnees.
Which leads to the question: Was our military not able to protect Vietnam veterans from antiwar protestors acting with impunity at our nation’s airports and other public places? I doubt that anything like this happened, but according to this book, all of these things did happen to returning soldiers after they spent a year in Vietnam working toward supporting a “fledgling democracy.” Is that what we were doing? You could have fooled me.
What also bothered me was that the characters never tell each other what’s on their minds or what’s really going on with them. Assumptions are made, usually the wrong ones given the cultural gap between Roger Connors and the young Vietnamese woman he has fallen in love with.
She is pregnant by him, never tells him, disappears, and leaves him to a life without her—the love of his life—and without their child, too. Does it all work out in the end? Not in my opinion.
If you want to read a tormented love story of star-crossed lovers set in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive and after, this novel is for you.
The book’s website is http://mulberryfieldsforever.com