Red Clay Ashes (343 pp. $16.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a novel set in the Vietnam War. Author Julie Tulba was inspired to write it after a trip to Vietnam. The plot focuses on the role of female Vietnam War correspondents. The main character is based on Anne Morrissey Merrick, who married a male journalist and raised a child in Saigon until America withdrew its combat troops in 1973.
The book opens in Saigon in 1975. As the communist forces close in, Hazel Baxter is evacuated, but not with her husband. The novel then jumps to 2005. Hazel’s daughter Bee is dealing with the death of her mother, whom she knows little about. She makes a trip to visit a friend of her mother, Suzanne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She shocks Bee with the story of her mother when she was a freelancer in Vietnam starting in 1967.
The novel has two tracks—Hazel’s and Bee’s. Hazel’s story makes up about eighty percent of the book. This gives Tulba the opportunity to highlight female journalists and to hit some interesting topics.
Hazel uses her press credentials to go on a patrol, visit a military hospital, participate in a psyop mission, ride in a tank to rescue a family, explore a VC tunnel, and expose the mistreatment of prisoners in South Vietnam’s Con Son prison. Meanwhile, she has a relationship with a veteran male journalist. All of this is news to Bee.
Tulba did her homework. She includes a bibliography, which is unusual for a novel. She is interested in shining a light on a war she feels is ignored in American History classes. And in highlighting female war correspondents.
Hazel and Suzanne risk their lives breaking a glass ceiling. Vietnam was the first American war in which journalists could go anywhere and watch anything. Tulba having Hazel take advantage of that allows her to give readers a taste of the seamier side of the war. That includes plunking Hazel in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive where she is wounded and sees death and destruction up close.
Hazel does it partly for the adrenalin rush. She also puts her job ahead of her family. However, Tulba avoids the stereotype of war correspondents being hard partiers. Instead, Tulba trods a less-traveled path by implying that journalists can have PTSD. This explains Hazel’s poor parenting.
There is a definite feminist vibe. The novel is antiwar, but it is not overdone. The book has no significant Vietnamese characters, so we do not get much on the effects of the war on civilians.
Instead, we get a reporter’s view, which includes the lying and exaggerating at the “5 O’Clock Follies” official military press briefings. Hazel sees and writes about the failure of the Americans winning the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people and about the devastation cause by spraying Agent Orange.
I enjoyed Red Clay Ashes. It is part romance, part mystery, and part history. While the romance is straight out of a rom-com without the com, overall the novel is well-written and Tulba’s attention to history is commendable.
Just don’t read it as a parenting guide.
Julie Tulba’s website is julietulba.com