Edge of Civilization By Jennifer Ott, ND.
When I started reading the unusual novel, Edge of Civilization (lulu.com, 184 pp., $20.50, paper), I assumed that the main character, Earl Hollsopple, was a Vietnam veteran. That because part of one chapter is set in “North East Vietnam, 1970,” and Earl is flying an airplane on a mission. We are told he is one minute from target.
Ott writes: “’Dude, got my hand on the trigger, and got Charlie in my sights,’” Brice replied calmly.”
The airplane crashes and two crew members are reduced to charred remains. Earl crawls into the underbrush and hides. Much later in this small novel we are told that the men who died were weapons officers.
“My job was to not get shot down. I failed.” That was Earl speaking.
At some point, we are informed that Earl Hollsopple was a part of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang Air Base and that his plane crashed near the border of West China on March 3, 1970. Even though he did not die in the crash, he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor
This is perhaps the oddest of all the Vietnam War novels I have read. It reminds me of Ron Kovic’s second book, Around the World in Eight Days, and also of Voltaire’s Candide.
After being shot down, Earl makes his way across China disguised as a leper, and finds a seaport where he gets illegal passage home to the United States. He comes into a large sum of money, which enables him to subsist as a desert hermit for the next forty years or so.
He chooses to leave his desert retreat when his stargazing results in spotting a helicopter flying overhead. He considers it a sign from above. Earl’s return to civilization does not go well, and he beats a retreat back to the desert. It seems that he has perhaps found his lost love during his adventures back in society.
I enjoyed this parable-like book. It works well as a way of looking at the struggles that many Vietnam veterans have had upon returning to “the World.” Earl was a stranger in a strange land when he left the desert after sighting the helicopter. I know how that feels, and Earl evoked much sympathy in me.
After his plane crashed in Vietnam, Earl had waited in vain for rescue. When that rescue failed to happen, he did what he had to do to get back home again. It was a journey that took him forty years, but he finally made it. My interpretation is that there is hope for us all to make it back home again.
This well-written little book is devoid of rants against the peace movement, politicians, and the news media that are common in Vietnam War novels. The only mention of “dead babies” is made by Earl—not by antiwar protesters.
I highly recommend this book as a change of pace from the usual Vietnam War infantry narratives. Jennifer Ott most certainly was not a pilot in the Vietnam War, but she inhabits Earl’s world with sensitivity and compassion.