The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler


Hannah Kohler’s The Outside Lands (St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $25.99, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction and a good-sized one. The cover shouts Vietnam War: a helmet lies like a turtle on its back with a poppy growing out of it. The helmet cover is in good shape and is not ripped or blood stained. There also is a peace symbol in the shape of a tennis ball, blue and white.

Hannah Kohler was raised in England. She studied English and American literature at Cambridge and began writing this Vietnam War novel while studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at City University, London.  Kohler lives in London with her American husband. The Outside Lands is her first published novel.

It is set in San Francisco in 1968. The main characters, a brother and sister—Jeannie and Kip—are “lost and half-orphaned, their mother dead under mysterious circumstances, and their father—a decorated WWII veteran—consumed by guilt.”

Kip joins up to go fight in Vietnam. Jeannie chooses an early marriage and motherhood. Kip is accused of fragging his CO and ends up in jail. Prior to that, he was assigned to artillery, which is described as “practically in the rear.” We’re told “war is not for everybody.”  No kidding.

Along the way, there are references to John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Al Capone, Buffalo Bill, Woody Strode, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Roy Orbison, as well as to Iwo Jima, Deadwood, and Seattle. Even “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” are mentioned. We’re told about friendly fire, that Marines don’t leave their dead behind, and the revolting nature of ham and motherfuckers.

I expected more anachronisms, but was happy they didn’t appear. Except for M16s. Did Marines have them in 1965? I believe it was more like 1967. I know that there were problems with them and many Marines lamented giving up their M14s.


Hannah Kohler

Kip ends up in Leavenworth in 1975. Jeannie watches the NVA takeover of Saigon on TV.  “They watched helicopters drag and fall into the ocean, their blades churning spray like smoke, their tadpole heads sinking in the water,” Kohler writes.

There are some truly unlikely coincidences and happenstances in this very literary novel that I won’t explore. The author thanks retired Marine Lt. Col. Ron Coulter, who helped with her research.

Hannah Kohler pursued a dream in writing this book.  A blurb on the back cover refers The Outside Lands as “‘an exhumed history’ of a misbegotten war.”

Aren’t all wars misbegotten?  They seem so to me.

—David Willson