Lance Cpl. James Earle Harper, an African American from Mississippi, is badly wounded at Khe Sanh saving the life of his lieutenant. In the Cam Ranh Bay hospital, just before Christmas 1967, he is visited by—not Santa—but by President Johnson, who pins a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to his hospital gown.
Harper is central to Sweden (The Mantle, 327 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.95, Kindle), Matthew Turner’s first novel. In the 1990s, Turner, a New Zealander, was living in Japan, working as a freelance translator, he said in an article on his publisher’s website. That’s when he learned of a late-1960s group called the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War U.S. Deserters (JATEC), the underground arm of Beheiren, the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam.
The desertion rate for the Vietnam War peaked “at 73.5 per 1,000 troops in 1971, well above the highest figures from World War II (63 per 1,000 troops in 1944) and the Korean War (22.3 per 1,000 in 1953),” Turner writes in a historical note. JATEC’s role in helping Vietnam War deserters was a small but fascinating one.
Turner started writing this novel in 2010. “[M]ost of the primary sources I relied on in researching Sweden were written in Japanese by people involved with the group,” he said. Another important source was Terry Whitmore’s 1971 memoir ,Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter.
Whitmore was the model for Earle Harper, who, after his encounter with LBJ, is flown to Japan for rehab at a U.S. military hospital. He’s told his next stop probably will be the States. Instead, he is ordered back to Vietnam and a war he no longer believes in. So he deserts.
So does another character, Eddie Flynn, a seaman apprentice on a U.S. hospital ship, after gruesome chores with the triage unit and in the morgue led to spells in the brig and drug addiction. Flynn spends one month as a patient in the naval mental health unit in Yokosuka. Pronounced fit for return to duty, he simply walks away.
In alternating chapters, Turner tells Flynn’s story, and Harper’s, and that of a rowdy trio of teenagers. He also shares absorbing details on Japan’s past, geography, religion, culture, and cuisine; recreates several days of a violent student strike at Nihon University; and portrays life at a hippie commune, a way station for American deserters.
The narrative keeps moving, thanks to Turner’s efficient prose, as well as an attractive supporting cast. The Beat poet Gary Snyder shows up at a Buddhist temple. And JATEC operatives—the jazz enthusiast Masuda among them—show resourcefulness in guiding the deserters on their individual perilous journeys.
There’s no guarantee of reaching the country’s far north, embarkation point for the next leg of the escape.