We are told in Michael Francis Reagan’s The Bird Dreamer (War Writers’ Campaign, 59 pp., $4.99, Kindle) that the author served as a plane captain in the U. S. Navy from 1963-67 during the Vietnam War, and that he is a free-lance illustrator.
The hero of the story Reagan tells in this novella grew up alone in the woods in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina abandoned by his mother and then by his father. Eli Martin becomes an artist devoted to drawing birds. He is self-educated by a house of books, including Frye’s Complete Geography, which features maps of the world on which “Vietnam was a pale rose color.” He is the “Bird Dreamer” of the title.
When Eli turns eighteen, he walks out of the woods and joins the Marines for four years, spending two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam with a rifle company in the Annam Highlands.
He leaves behind his sweetheart, Erin Bellew, in the nearby village of Covenant. She is the daughter of the proprietor of Bellew’s General Store. Eli has secretly pledged his troth to Erin, without even making it known to her. He returns to his home deep in the woods, much traumatized by his time in Vietnam after having been awarded two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star. He was called “Mountain Man” by his comrades in the Marines.
He returns “home from a war nobody believed in anymore,” as Eli puts it. He goes on to say: “I died over there, too, you know.”
When Erin realizes Eli is back, she thinks, “Would the war have ruined him like she had seen it do to so many other boys from around here?”
She has good reason to worry. Eli and his team had entered a small village after it had been napalmed, and witnessed the deaths of three small girls in a hut. They were suffering, but not quite dead from their lethal burns, and Eli put them out of their misery. One of the girls left behind a sketchbook of birds similar to the one that Eli had filled with bird drawings back home. Eli takes the sketchbook with him.
This moving story is equal parts parable and dream. Erin and Eli reach out to each other, hoping for the healing power of love. The reader will root for these two pure souls.
The book’s publisher, the nonprofit War Writers’ Campaign, believes in the power of therapy through communication.
I highly recommend this small book. It is one of a kind, and it is the sweetest and most hopeful healing tale of the Vietnam War I have ever read.