Come Now the Angels by Susan Kummernes

Come Now the Angels: Five Marines in Vietnam: A Woman’s Story of Love, Death, War, & Hope (A Seat at the Table Publishing, 353 pp. $14.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) the debut novel of Florida author Susan Kummernes, centers on a U.S. Marine Corps gun team stationed in Con Thien near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam in 1967.

Their charismatic gunner, Jesse McGowan, an all-American boy from Maryland, is based on the author’s own first love, who was killed in Vietnam. Fighting alongside him are Mike Redd, an African American from Georgia; Chingas Ramirez, a Mexican American from New York City; Angel Santiago, a Cuban immigrant who settled in Chicago; and John Beau Parker from Florida. Though from diverse backgrounds, the men are forever bonded by their shared experiences in the war.

In between the chapters about the Marines are those detailing the memories of Annie Miller, Jesse’s childhood sweetheart-turned-Washington Post reporter—and a fictional stand-in for Kummernes herself. While on a trip to New Orleans in 2006, Annie encounters a group of Vietnamese Americans protesting the city’s decision to dump the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in their neighborhood. She meets Lucky Dai, whom she learns is the daughter of Mike Redd and his wife, a Vietnamese nurse named nicknamed Tweet.

Susan Kummernes wrote and researched Come Now the Angels for twelve years, a dedication that shows in the accuracy of the battle scenes and the impressive detail of the 1960s settings. That Kummernes drew from her own experience as well as from outside sources is evident in the level of personal care she shows for her characters and their stories.

The novel’s strengths are somewhat overshadowed by bits of contrived dialogue and Kummernes’ tendency to over explain the social and political context of the story (at one point, Jesse talks so pedantically about the Domino Theory that even the other characters get annoyed). That said, Come Now the Angels is a poignant and compelling novel and would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the social and emotional effects of the Vietnam War on generations of Americans.

This may be Kummernes last novel. When asked recently by the book and author website Pretty-Hot.com what was next for her, she responded, “As a writer? Nothing.”

Kummernes is donating all proceeds from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America. Her website is susankummernes.com

–Meg Bywater

The First Stone by Lynn Underwood

The First Stone (High Tide Publications, 293 pp. $12.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Vietnam War veteran Lynn Underwood, who served with the 1st Marine Division as a radio operator and forward observer. The book’s main theme is the meaning of the word “family” in all of its configurations and ramifications. It’s a story in which a tragic secret carried home from the war in Vietnam may not even be a family’s biggest one.

This is a multi-generational story of several families spreading their influence throughout New Mexico from the 1940s through the 1970s, although the story moves into Mexico, Greece, Vietnam, and Southern California, and ends in 2004.

It begins in the mid-1930s when a teenage Mexican girl, Conchita, crosses the border from Juarez with her young child hoping for a better life. Going to work cleaning people’s homes, she gets into a secret relationship with Simon Kouris, who is making a name for himself in the construction business. Her second son, Ray, Jr., is told he will receive a family inheritance if he completes a hitch with the Marine Corps and receives an honorable discharge.

Bartolome Valles is a serious competitor of Kouris’s company. Their rivalry leads to a night of violence. Out of that night comes three deaths and a dark secret.

Zachary Martin grows up working on a farm. In 1969, he’s a Marine corporal in Vietnam. He frequently takes part in search and destroy missions, and after the death of a buddy, receives a Bronze Star for valor. But along with that medal comes a secret he carries that haunts him. Ray Kouris witnesses much of it the incident. In 1973 Martin marries Jordon Valles, a college student and the daughter of Bartolome Valles. This threatens to expose secrets that have been held for years. Redemption and forgiveness play major parts in this story and are embodied in the character of Padre Juan.

This is a novel that Underwood tells by narrowing the story until the midway point, then widening it out after that. It requires the reader to pay attention to keep up with the plot lines, but that’s not a bad thing.

The author’s website is lynnunderwoodauthor.com

–Bill McCloud

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Gary D. Schmidt has written more than twenty books for young people and has won many awards, including a Newberry Honor Awards. His latest book, Just Like That (Clarion Books, 400 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), will join his pantheon of noteworthy books written for young people, aged ten and up. The story will grab any middle school student’s attention (and any adult’s, for that matter) from the first paragraph.

I say this as a former middle school teacher and coach and a former Marine CH-46D helicopter crew chief. The story begins in the summer of 1968 with one of the protagonists watching an evening news report from Vietnam and witnessing the crash of a Ch-46A helicopter full of Marines. What a great way to start a conversation about the war in Vietnam and its effects on young people back home. Schmidt uses this literary device to introduce us to Meryl Lee Kowalski and the intense emotions she faces after the death of her best friend, Hodding Hoodhood (Schmidt’s protagonist in his book, The Wednesday Wars), in a bizarre car accident.

Loss and how we deal with it are woven masterfully into this story. Meryl Lee, like any adolescent, cannot seem to wrap her head around this senseless loss as she grieves. The loss leaves an emptiness inside her, an emptiness she refers to as her blank—always close by and always ready to consume her.

Meryl Lee’s parents decide that she needs a change of scenery and enroll her in a boarding school in Maine. If you Google “how stress affects adolescents,” you will find that the top three factors are losing a loved one, going through your parents’ divorce, and moving to a different school.

We are soon introduced to a second protagonist, Matt Coffin, a streetwise boy of middle school age who lives on his own in an old fishing shack on the Maine coast . As I read Just Like That, I kept seeing the young people I taught and coached in mddle school a hundred years ago. They somehow morphed into the young men I served with and flew with over the unfriendly skies of South Vietnam. Reading Schmidt’s novel brought a smile to my lips and the occasional tear to my eye.

The dexterous manner in which Schmidt draws all of his characters and the intense situations he creates for the main ones are part of his superlative ability to tell a story and draw the reader into it. He creates well-developed characters and that will always keep you reading.

This is a story that understands the human nature in all of us. It’s the intrinsic trust in the goodness of humanity that Schmidt exudes that makes you turn page after page in awesome wonder. Just Like That is an engaging story that will encourage students to turn to more classical literature such as The Grapes of Wrath and want to learn about important figures in history like Mary Queen of Scots and Spiro Agnew, known to the girls at St Elene’s as “Zipper” Agnew.

One warning: Just Like That is not a good book to pick up at bedtime because it will keep you reading all night long.

–Charles Templeton

The reviewer is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam. His website is https://www.charlestempleton.com

Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror by Geoff Widders

Geoff Widders’ Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror (313 pp. $11.91, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction that tells the amazing story of Kurt Langer through the eyes of the main character, Jimmy Greer. Like old pulp novels, this book it tells a tale of a larger-than-life hero in an exaggerated manner.

As a reminder, Geoff Widders is the author, Kurt Langer the hero, and Jimmy Greer tells the story.

In 1968, Langer is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. For two years, he tries to stay sane by singing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song to himself that he remembers from basic training. A tiny bit of research reveals that that’s not possible, though, because that song was released in late 1970.

Langer frequently fantasizes about escaping. But each morning, Widders writes, he wakes up “from the world of nightmare into a nightmarish world.”

Finally, his chance to escape comes when a female VC falls for him. She realizes that something sets Langer apart from the other men. In a way, it was as if he is “other-worldly.” We learn that Langer becomes “a legend” the night he and the woman escape, then later directs an assault on the POW camp resulting in the release of all of his fellow captives.

We now move to 1976 and learn a little of narrator Jimmy Greer’s background, including how he wound up in Turkey where he met a beautiful older woman who reminds him of a Rider Haggard action-adventure-novel heroine. They hook up and then he is forced to go on the run with a different woman. That’s when he runs into the legendary Langer. After learning only that Langer had served in the Vietnam War, Greer thinks: “This guy may have killed tens or even hundreds of the enemy.”

Greer goes on to describe Langer as a man with “a classic thousand-yard stare,” the kind of guy who was “able to parachute, alone, into enemy territory” and “had seen events and had experiences that we should not see or feel.” Widders adds that Langer’s experiences in the war sent him “loop-de-loop.” On the other hand, he portrays Langer as the kind of guy who makes people braver just by being around him.

Geoff Widders

Moving again into the future we learn that Langer gets involved in a criminal act and is incarcerated for decades. Once he’s released, it’s just in time for him for the 74-year-old Vietnam vet to shut down a gigantic planned Islamic attack on San Francisco.

Once that was resolved, Widders writes, “The whole world came to know the name Kurt Langer.”

This is a pulp adventure with a larger-than-life hero and lots of exaggeration. When writing about a murder, for example, Widders mentions that there are “tens of thousands of homicides each year in California,” when, in fact, there’s only been one year that reached 4,000.

So, perhaps it’s best while reading this book to think of it as a story set in an alternate place and time. That way it works pretty well.

–Bill McCloud

The Birdhouse Man by Rick DeStefanis

In Rick DeStefanis’ novel, The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story (360 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), an older veteran tell his Vietnam War story to a student working on a college project. DeStefanis served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72. The book is the latest novel in his Vietnam War Series.

In it, widower Sam Walker is selling his handmade birdhouses at a campus arts and crafts festival when he meets a student, Claire Cunningham, who tells him the military insignia on his cap is the same one her grandfather had worn. Her grandfather had recently died before he could help her with her senior thesis, which was going to be based mainly on his Vietnam War experiences. Sam seldom talked about the war, except when he had taught it at the college, and he never told anyone about his personal experiences. Still, he decides to help Clair finish the thesis, even though she wants the unfiltered truth of what he did, saw, and thought.

Sam tells her he had enlisted ahead of the draft, volunteered for OCS, then went to Airborne and Ranger School. He landed in Vietnam in late 1967 and noted that everything “outside the barbed wire appeared to be a land of poverty and filth.” He goes on to say that the Vietnamese countryside was “litter, naked children, rivers, and palm trees—sort of like paradise gone to hell.” He was amazed to see a “house made of beer cans.”

Sam eventually tells the young woman of combat so intense and close-up that his rifle was once pressed against the chest of an enemy soldier when he fired it. After a few sessions with her, his nightmares return. We then learn that Claire is trying to connect with her father who served in the Army in Iraq and is on the streets somewhere suffering from PTSD. As Sam continues his story and answers her questions, he decides to help Claire find her father.

In a way the main plot is a fantasy in which a grumpy old veteran finally decides to talk about the war, but only to a young female college student who is very attractive and, as Sam says, my “kind of woman.” While on the road searching for her father the two frequently share a hotel room. One morning they eat breakfast in the room with her wrapped only in a blanket. And, to round out the fantasy, Claire hangs on every word of Sam’s story.

On the other hand, everything turns out to be on the up and up, which seems plausible. Claire loved her grandfather and sees much of him in Sam.

I was impressed with how Rick DeStefanis spun out the various threads of this story in such a way that I never once thought things might come unraveled. He has created a great story of war and the human relationships that come together because of it.

His website is rickdestefanis.com

–Bill McCloud

Elsewhere Than Vietnam by David Schwartz

Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”

It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.

Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.

“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.

Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”

He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.

Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.

Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.

The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.

–Bill McCloud

War Crimes by Martin Robert Grossman

War Crimes (Koehler Books, 276 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper, $5.03, Kindle) is Martin Robert Grossman’s second mystery novel featuring Jerry Andrews, a Vietnam veteran and recently retired Los Angeles Police Department detective. The former Green Beret is living in a peaceful village in northern Mexico when he gets a call from an old Army buddy, Jon Compton, a retired Texas Ranger. Compton asks Andrews to help him resolve an issue he’s taken on.

Seabrook, Texas, is a small fishing town near Houston. In the mid-1970s Vietnamese shrimpers who fled their homeland ended up working the coastal waters there. Feelings of prejudice, combined with fears of competition, led some locals to attack the newcomers and burn their boats. There also was at least one murder, and the influx of Vietnamese led to the appearance of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan.

Things calmed down and nearly two decades went by. But now the body of a Vietnamese male is discovered. He had been shot in the hard and had his throat cut. A playing card–an ace of spades with the Grim Reaper holding a scythe—was found on the body. Former Ranger Compton volunteers to help investigate. Then, following a second similar murder, he decides to ask his old buddy Jerry Andrews to join him.

Soon there’s a third victim, with mutilation added to it, and Compton tells Andrews they need to quickly solve these new murders “under the radar” before the situation causes a new race riot. But racist skinheads are already beginning to gather in town and a reporter for the local newspaper hopes to break the story wide open. After a fourth murder they know they’re after “a deranged serial killer” who is very likely a Vietnam War veteran.

There’s a broad cast of characters in this story, many with military backgrounds. There’s a nearby VA hospital and a private retreat set up for veterans. The founder of the latter is driven by a desire to slow down the numbers of brave men fought in the Vietnam War only to end up being killed by “the lifestyle” they’ve “been forced into by an ungrateful nation.”

Martin Grossman

The direct connection between War Crimes and Grossman’s previous novel, Club Saigon, in addition to the character of Jerry Andrews, is the illicit movement of cocaine and heroin between Vietnamese-American communities. In both novels the author frequently refers to Vietnamese people as “Orientals.” That term today is outdated, but at least its use is consistent throughout the two books.

After reading War Crimes and Club Saigon you could end up believing that every American who served in Vietnam left the war zone as damaged goods. Some did, but most didn’t. Remember that as you read these novels in which memories of the war eventually pour out in extremely violent fashion.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–Bill McCloud

The Puppy Predicament by Rachel Anderson

Rachel Anderson’s The Puppy Predicament (Late November Literary, 153 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is a delightful story for young readers. This is Anderson’s first children’s novel and came after many years of her carrying the story idea around with her.

The story, in a nutshell: Emily Hanover is a sixth grader living with her parents in rural America during the Vietnam War. Her brother, Greg, is serving there. So is a neighbor, Paul.

The family’s clothes are hung to dry on a line in the backyard and the family has to wait their turn to use their telephone because they’re on a party line. Oh, and the neighbors, Paul’s parents, have a dog who has just given birth to a litter of ten puppies. Emily hears the neighbor refer to the newborns as “mutts” and fears the fact they could be in danger.

Her parents won’t let Emily have one of the puppies, but she gets a wagon and takes the mother and her pups to a hidden place. In her mind she has rescued them. She worries about how she’s going to keep them hidden and how she can feed them. These concerns are added to another one that never seems to go away. She worries about her brother and knows her parents and neighbors worry, too.

At school her teacher points to Vietnam on a world map. To Emily it seems her brother is so far away he “might as well be on the moon.” Still, Emily wishes she could go there and bring him back home.

One day the neighbors learn their son is missing in action. When Emily hears the news she immediately thinks her brother will be able to find his friend. Work on the farm goes on, school goes on. A cousin tells her how “brave” she was to rescue the puppies, giving her a sense of pride, and the feeling that her brother and his friend are both really brave, too.

But now her mom seems to be different. More serious, kind of sad. Emily sneaks an envelope out of her mother’s apron. It’s a recent letter from her brother in which he writes of danger and being afraid. Anderson explains Emily’s reaction this way: “Emily put the letter on the floor, pulled her knees to her chest and bawled. Nothing would be the same now that she knew the truth. Nothing.”

Rachel Anderson

Fortunately, Emily has those ten puppies to focus on and to keep her from worrying too much about her brother. But then the letters stop coming.

While her Mom says, “No news can be good news,” Emily is not so sure.

Aimed at a reading level of 7-12 years, this engaging, fast-moving story covers serious issues and does so in a serious manner. But it’s appropriately upbeat ending will make it a book youngsters will be glad they read and older folks will be happy to share it with their children and grandchildren.

–Bill McCloud

One Degree by Gus Kappler

Gus Kappler’s One Degree: An Historical Medical Mystery (BookBaby, 262 pp. $13.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a mix of fact and fiction with a strong Vietnam War theme. Dr. Kappler did a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai in 1970-71.

In this novel, after Pfc. Richard Burrows is wounded, he is treated at a field hospital in Saigon, then medevaced to Japan, and later sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. After a few months at Walter Reed Burrows seems to be improving, but then suddenly takes a turn for the worse and is in danger of losing both his legs. He then dies of cardiac arrest. When he does, one of his doctors wonders, “What did we miss?”

A lab technician at Walter Reed, Matt Rogowicz, blames himself for Burrows’ post-op death because of what happened a few weeks earlier. Rogowicz had examined a slide of Burrows’ blood and detected an abnormality in a white cell. But there were no reports in the medical literature about such a distortion in infection-fighting white blood cells. Rogowicz could not convince his superiors that this was something that required further investigation and then his patient died.

After leaving the military, Rogowicz becomes obsessed with the tragedy and decides to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of it. He learns about two more seemingly similar deaths and cover-ups of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. He blames himself even more, and soon exhibits PTSD symptoms, as do others he interviews. There’s a question of whether exposure to Agent Orange could be an issue, and there is a rumor that a Vietnamese worker may have placed a Russian-made toxin in the food in American mess halls.

Then China comes into the picture and things really pick up. There’s a possible connection to Big Pharma, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that had, Kappler writes, “allied with giants in other industries to create and sustain a consortium of players that, in the real sense of the word, ruled the world economically and politically.” This “ruling class” decided to try to control the most powerful man in the world and began grooming a corrupt U.S. senator for a run at the U.S. presidency.

As Rogowicz’s mission drags on for years, it becomes a life-changing experience. He’s not going to stop until he gets this particular monkey off his back. He joins with a handful of other Vietnam War veterans who bring in others who have experience with the mystery disease.

Dr. Kappler, fourth from left, with other 85th Evac surgeons in Chu Lai

Kappler’s dialogue does not come off as natural. He often uses what his characters say as a way of providing information for the reader as characters spit out facts. The brief section of the book that takes place in Vietnam includes several tropes. The VC, for example, turn Claymore mines around to face the GIs; there is a “newbie” First Lieutenant; and pilots survive “several crashes.”

Overall, though, the medical mystery part of this hybrid novel kept me engaged.

Kappler’s website is guskappler.com

–Bill McCloud