Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

Missing on Hill 700 by Carrie Pepper

Marine PFC Anthony “Tony” Pepper disappeared in 1968 while attempting to capture Hill 700 in Vietnam, west of  Khe Sanh. Four days later his parents received a telegram that listed him missing in action. The message was the first of six similar telegrams the Pentagon sent to the family in the next six months. A seventh and final message classified Tony as killed in action/body not recovered.

The loss of their only son put the Pepper family members into mourning for the remainder of their lives. Following the deaths of both parents and the estrangement of an older sister, Tony Pepper’s younger sister Carrie took up the challenge of finding his remains. She had been thirteen when Tony died.

Carrie Pepper tells the story of her quest in Missing on Hill 700: How Losing a Brother in Vietnam Created a Family in America (Cottage Ink, 242 pp., $24.95). Vietnam veterans of 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines who had fought alongside Tony Pepper comprised the new family that she created in America—a family dedicated to the remembrance of her brother.

She found these veterans, many with closely involved wives, and built relationships with them through phone calls, email, letters, visits, memorial services, and unit reunions. Carrie Pepper’s research has recreated the last days of her brother’s life. At the same time, she vicariously experienced what he would have gone through had he survived the war because her band of new brothers also shared the good and bad from their post-war lives.

Despite never finding her brother’s remains, Carrie Pepper arranged to have a ceremony to place a tombstone for him in a special section of Arlington National Cemetery in 2007.

Tony Pepper in 1967

Strong similarities link Carrie Pepper’s Missing on Hill 700 with June 17, 1967 by David Hearne. The books differ only because a civilian woman wrote one and a former artillery lieutenant wrote the other.

Both stories, however, focus on small infantry units that needlessly suffered high casualty rates. A tragic undercurrent of the stories is that the casualties were young men who willingly followed flawed tactics and indifferent orders.

These accounts recognize a problem common to small unit operations in the Vietnam War. The lessons taught by them deserve to be told again and again.

Each one was an avoidable tragedy.

The author’s website is cottageinkpublishing.com

—Henry Zeybel

Long Daze at Long Binh by Steve Donovan and Fred Borchardt.

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Long Daze at Long Binh: 24th Evac Hospital South Vietnam, 1966-68—The Humorous Adventures of Two Wisconsin Draftees Trained as Combat Medics and Sent Off to Set Up a Field Hospital in South Vietnam, (DCI Communications, 380 pp., $24.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a humorous memoir by Steve Donovan and Fred Borchardt.

Five “out of every six military personnel sent to the Vietnam War were support personnel,” the authors write, “cooks, clerks, mechanics, electricians, engineers, policemen, surveyors, translators, pilots, pharmacists, truck drivers, doctors, nurses, and medics, to name just a few. This is a story of war as seen through the eyes of two of those individuals, It’s a tale that was sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart rending.”

There are 37 chapters followed by a detailed glossary. I recommend checking out the chapter headings before reading the book. You’ll find “Robert Mitchum needs to learn to salute,” “Chuck Connors owes me a tooth,” “Praying for rain and Raquel Welch,” and so on. We are told the book consists of the authors’ best recollections of things that happened fifty years ago. They admit to tweaking the narrative to make the book more interesting and exciting.

These two young men from Wisconsin were stationed at Long Binh the same time I was there. I was eager to compare notes with Donovan and Borchardt. Full disclosure: I know Steve Donovan from our post-war careers.

Donovan and Borchardt served for sixteen months with the 24th Evac. They managed to perform the duties of more than sixteen different military occupational specialties—from hospital orderly to prisoner guard to headquarters clerk. There is nothing about combat in this book.

As I always do, I kept a running list of pop culture names that popped up in the narrative. I won’t weigh down this review with the complete list. Suffice it to say the list includes Arlo Guthrie, Jane and Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, James Brown, and Robert Mitchum. Agent Orange gets good brief coverage.

The unique structure of Long Daze—alternating the two points of view of the authors inside the chapters—gives the reader great contrast and comparison and is the main strength of this accessible and useful book. Yes, it is funny, but it is much more than that. It is a repository of facts and memories from this long-ago time.

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There are no clinkers or clunkers in this book. The authors get it right and they make it all interesting.  Thanks, guys, for producing the best book about REMF life in South Vietnam during this time period.

Nobody will top you any time soon, if ever.

The book’s website is longbinhdaze.com

—David Willson

Where the Water Meets the Sand by Tyra Manning

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Some people who never take part in a war still have trouble finding “home” again after the war is over. Having a spouse or family member go off to military service, even temporarily, can put undue stress on the children and spouses back home. Of course, many families are permanently broken by loved ones who never return home, either physically or mentally, from their time in service.

In Where the Water Meets the Sand (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 256 pp., $15.95, paper), Tyra Manning, the widow of an Air Force pilot, shares her personal struggle dealing with the loss of her husband and any semblance of her former family life when he was killed in action in Vietnam. Her memoir will resonate with anyone who has suffered through the loss of a loved one. It also will provide support for those who feel as if they are alone in their struggle to return to normal life.

Tyra Manning, who holds a doctorate in education administration, was a newlywed, twenty-something mother of a one-year old girl when her husband deployed. Already suffering from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse related to her father’s death, Manning collapsed entirely without the emotional support of her husband. She found herself unable to hold her family together in his absence, and dropped her daughter off with relatives to check herself into the Menninger Clinic, an upscale psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kansas.

Much of the story revolves around Manning’s experiences at Menninger as she confronted, albeit shallowly, the enduring pain she’d suffered since losing her father, a wound aggravated by the sudden absence of her husband and the stress of not knowing when, or if, he would return. In the months of treatment that followed, Manning rediscovered confidence in herself with help from doctors and patients at Menninger.

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Tyra Manning

Manning’s memoir brings attention to the often un-discussed psychological trauma that spouses and other family members of veterans endure, along with the depression and substance abuse that can lurk in the wake of a family member’s service.

Manning brings this up in a Q&A at the end of the book, saying, “Many of us discuss our own struggles and those of the ones we love in whispers, and we keep our illnesses secret, perpetuating the barrier to treatment.”
This is not a self-help book. But Where the Water Meets the Sand contributes to a growing body of Vietnam War literature that encourages discussion of mental health and substance abuse issues among those who’ve experienced—or know someone who has endured— similar struggles.

“The stigma and lack of empathy toward those who require treatment is still a gigantic hurdle,” Manning writes. That is exactly what her memoir attempts to resolve.

The author’s website is tyramanning.com

— James Schuessler