Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

61yfe82ohpl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Jacqueline Woodson, who was born in 1963, is a prolific, award-winning author who specializes in books for children and young adults. Brown Girl Dreaming, her 2014 best-selling memoir, won a National Book Award. Woodson’s latest book, Another Brooklyn (Amistad, 192 pp., $22.99), is an adult novel with a strong sexual focus.

Much of it deals with what eight-year old August views of her neighborhood while caring for her little brother in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The scene from her third floor window often reminded me of the Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, both in tone and content.

August is befriended by three other neighborhood girls—Sylvia, Angela and Gigi—and the sexual tone intensifies. The main thrust of their conversations and concerns is the peril they are in due to their developing bodies and the unrest this causes in the men of all ages they who surround them.

The Vietnam War is often mentioned in this slender, dream-like book, and never in a positive way. One of Woodson’s most graphic images is of a returned veteran who is armless but who has taught himself how to shoot dope using his teeth.

“A man who used to be a boy on our block walked the streets in his Army uniform, armless,” August says. “My brother and I watched him from our window, watched his head dipping down like a bird tucking itself beneath its own wing.”

Wartime Vietnam is where the men who took advantage of the young girls went to die. The girls went south with their pregnancies, not to return. No mention of birth control is ever made in this book.

71fs6kqmybl-_ux250_

Jacqueline Woodson

I could give many more examples of how the Vietnam War makes an appearance in this small book, but the one I described hits so hard, I will only offer only one other. “As the damage of the war staggered, strung-out and bleary eyed along our block, Miss Dora greeted every ex-soldier who passed,” Woodson writes. “Glad y’all made it home, she said. We’ll see my boy in the by and by.”

As a blurb on the back of the book by Ann Patchett puts it, this is a fever dream of a book. It’s probably not aimed at my demographic, but I couldn’t put it down.

Every page reeks with danger, and I found myself glad that I spent the early seventies in a very different place. Seattle had its problems, but African-American girls there were aware of birth control. I was a welfare caseworker then, so I know of what I speak.

—David Willson

Secret Choices by Tom Puetz

9780989206006___

Tom Puetz’s Secret Choices (Dragon Tale Books, 232 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a book of fiction. But Puetz draws heavily on his own personal history for the meat of his narrative. He grew up on a farm in Indiana, served as an infantry sergeant in the Vietnam War, and was honorably discharged in December 1969.

He shares with the main character, Tom Warden, an employment record of twenty years of random jobs of all kinds, until he found stability. The book alternates chapters between his time in South Vietnam and 1984 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, at his high school reunion. The book ends in 1970 in Freeland, Indiana, when Tom has been back from Vietnam for two months and attending Indiana University in Bloomington.

He’d made this plan because that was what he was going to before he got drafted. But Tom can’t stick to a plan made when he was a very different man. Then comes twenty years of trying to find himself. The black dog of rage follows him everywhere. He keeps a sidearm with him at all times and an ice cooler of beer in the back of his pickup truck.

This is one of the rare Vietnam War infantry novels in which the return-home section is well developed. Tom Warden gets involved in an interesting and believable subplot involving numbers running and murder. He handles himself well and does not become a patsy. I won’t become a spoiler and say any more.

Secret Choices is a worthy, well-written novel. Both male and female characters are fleshed out and engrossing to read about. This reader cared about the people on these pages.  The cover—which is misleading to say the least—is striking nevertheless.

11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111

Tom Puetz

Secret Choices explores serious issues such as the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home and realized that their country was lost to them. I remember the aloneness I felt when I returned to Seattle from Binh Hoa—something Puetz effectively evokes in the last chapters of the book. This makes Secret Choices much more than just a thriller, which it also is.

Thanks to Tom Puetz for a very good first novel.

His website is secretchoices.homestead.com

—David Willson

Kissing the Tarmac by James Hansen

11111111111111111111111111111

James Hansen in Vietnam in 1968

The wonder of it all never ceases: Young men go to war, survive unimaginable trauma, come home emotionally troubled, and struggle to get on with their lives. Draftee James Hansen’s memoir—Kissing the Tarmac: Winning the War With PTSD (Stories To Tell, 164 pp. $14.95, paper)—is the latest book written by a veteran who found it difficult to understand how and why he deserved to live through the Vietnam War.

During nine months of search-and-destroy missions, Hansen says that he accumulated a burden of “sorrow, regret, shame, and guilt.” Forty-nine men from his unit —Charlie Co., 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne—died in action during 1968-69 when Hansen served

Luck played an inordinate role in Hansen’s survival, a fact that he fully recognizes. He graphically describes how men died around him and in his arms while he remained relatively untouched physically. Every death, however, added to the emotional toll. Decades passed before he began to understand and work on the psychological effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In civilian life, Hansen filled all the squares: He married, found success in his work, and built a family. At the same time, though, he felt restless, frequently changed jobs, moved from town to town, drove his wife to a divorce, and abandoned his family.

Hansen wastes no words in recalling the past. He tells what he did and what he saw in combat without seeking sympathy or understanding from the reader. He takes a similar approach to his PTSD. Overall, the book fulfills its goals: first, to cure Hansen, and second, to offer a plan of relief for others confronted by PTSD.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here in the field of PTSD research,” he writes, “but these ten steps worked for me.” Writing the book was a big part of the treatment that helped to rid him of suppressed anxiety.

Hansen also wrote the book for his two sons and three grandsons, with whom he “never shared anything about the Vietnam War until now.” An in-country diary that he calls the Little Red Notebook and 224 letters  he wrote home served as guides to his recalling the war as part of PTSD counseling. That material had sat untouched in storage for decades.

It is easy to find interest in Hansen’s accounts of searching for the NVA. He jumps from one sudden, unexpected action to another. Although he describes much that has been written about before, he presents those events in a unique voice that makes them special to him. The mercilessness shown by men in his unit appalled him, for example, and yet he admits to having behaved in equally merciless ways.

In Vietnam, James Hansen was a young man within a man searching amid chaos to find an identity. He ended up lost and required most of his life after coming home to reach that goal.

For ordering info, send an email to hansen22769@aol.com

The author’s blog is jameshansen.wordpress.com

—Henry Zeybel