Emmet and the Boy by Terence O’Leary

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Terence O’Leary’s Emmet and the Boy: A Story of Endless Love and Hope (Swan Creek Press, 241 pp., $12.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction written for young adults as were many of O’Leary’s earlier works. This book is every bit as strong as O’Leary’s 2017 novel, Bringing Boomer Home. There is a lot in the new book about the process of dying from cancer and Hospice. Since I am currently dying from cancer, I found a lot to identify with.

The Old Man, the main character of this story, suffers through the lingering death of his wife, the love of his life, and tries to find the will to go on living. His grandson was abandoned by his father following his parents’ nasty divorce, and is hiding in a fantasy world.

Somehow, the mismatched aspect of their generations makes it possible for them to communicate. They hide out at Grandpa’s lakeside cabin way out in the Michigan woods. The Old Man, Emmet, tries to help the boy, Colin, heal, as he himself begins to heal by getting over the death of his beloved wife.

The book consists of simple short chapters. Some are just discussions between the Old Man and the boy about the meaning of life or past experiences. My favorite chapter comes late in the book when the subject of war rears its ugly head.

“You were in the Army?’

“Just for a couple of years.”

“Were you in a war?”

The Old Man does not want to talk about the war, but he goes ahead and does so. He’s asked if he killed anyone.

“I was a medic. My job was to try to save people, not kill them.”

“That’s cool.  I bet you were good at it.” 

The Old Man goes on to discuss further the Vietnam War. 

“They say time heals all. It doesn’t. The memories of Viet Nam are still with me like ghosts in the corner.” 

I highly recommend this sensitive book to young adults, and to those who are not so young. O’Leary is one of the best writers currently writing to this audience.

The author’s website is www.terenceoleary.com

—David Willson

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Captured by Alvin Townley

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As the fourth highest-ranking officer among the prisoners held in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton set a standard of behavior virtually beyond imagination in fulfilling the rigid expectations of the official Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Denton’s seven-and-a-half years—from July 1965 to February 1973—as a prisoner have been well chronicled. That includes When Hell Was in Session, Denton’s 1982 memoir. The latest recreation of Denton’s POW experience is Alvin Townley’s Captured: An American Prisoner of War in North Vietnam (Scholastic Focus, 256 pp. $18.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), a book for Young Adults. The two men were friends until Denton’s death in 2014 at age 89. Captured captures the bravery of the American POWs’ resistance against North Vietnamese torture.

Of the Code of Conduct’s six Articles, Denton—who was promoted to Rear Admiral during his captivity—concentrated on two: First, he took a leadership position among prisoners when he was the senior officer of a group. Second, he emphasized providing the enemy with only name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

“And if you say more,” Denton ordered, “make them beat it out of you.” He stressed that a prisoner’s ultimate goal was to maintain personal integrity in order to return home with honor.

“[Jerry] defined leadership with a fearless sense of bold, almost unthinking, self-sacrifice,” Townley says. He “took the punches and the rope first. If he didn’t, how could he expect others to follow his orders?”

The North Vietnamese favorite (and most effective) type of torture was to bind a prisoner in ropes that compressed his body and drastically reduced blood circulation and breathing, and then leave him in that position for hours. Other tortures included long stretches of solitary confinement, often in darkness; imprisonment in a four-by-four-foot concrete cell; a parade through Hanoi that allowed the public to abuse the prisoners; feeding the men soup laced with human feces; and bombarding them with propaganda.

Denton advised his subordinates to “take torture and before you lose your sanity, write something harmless or ludicrous.” At the same time, he believed “a prisoner should not make any statement disloyal to the United States.”

Although he advocated a hard line, Denton understood that no one can hold out forever in the face of torture. During periods of unrelenting, brutal torture, all prisoners “signed the apologies, the confessions,” Townley notes.

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The North Vietnamese viewed American prisoners as political tools whose confessions could validate the United States as an aggressor nation in the eyes of the entire world.

In my mind, the degree of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is incalculable. From that premise, I attempt to quantify the degree to which political, racial, and economic differences affect a jailer’s treatment of his prisoners. I often have wondered if the men who originally wrote the Code of Conduct ever had even an inkling of similar thoughts.

Retired Navy Capt. Allen Colby Brady spent more than six years as a prisoner in Hanoi during the time Denton was there. He recently published an account of that experience in Witnessing the American Century: Via Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and the Straits of Florida. His attitude and actions as a prisoner slightly differed from Denton’s. Still, considering the intensity of their environment, even the slightest differences provide extremely interesting comparisons.

—Henry Zeybel

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Dear Allyanna by Michael Lee Lanning

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After receiving a diagnosis of terminal kidney cancer, Michael Lee Lanning decided he still had a mind full of knowledge that he wanted to share. At the time, he had written twenty-five non-fiction books on the Vietnam War, other aspects of military history, sports, and health. Many were big sellers.

As a result of his response to the diagnosis, Lee Lanning has written Dear Allyanna: An Old Soldier’s Last Letter to His Granddaughter (Hardy Publishing, 238 pp., $18.95, paper).

The book relates ideas and experiences he had yet to share with his offspring. Granddaughter Allyanna became the vehicle for transmitting information that alphabetically ranges from “Abortion” to “Zen.”

The length of each discussion stretches from one sentence to fourteen pages. Lanning has fun with lists such as “Things That I Like” followed by “Things That Irritate Me,” and “Things I Am Pretty Sure Of,” followed by “Things I Still Have Questions About.”

Growing up on an isolated West Texas ranch and serving in the U.S. Army provide background for much of his advice. During 1969-70, he led a 199th Light Infantry Brigade platoon and then a company in the Vietnam War, eventually retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1988. He blends first-hand accounts of the fury of firefights and of 2008 Hurricane Ike with topics such as “Books I Didn’t Write,” “Psychotherapy,” and “Race Relations.”

He favors liberal-leaning values and dismisses undeserved recognition of authority such as a bow or curtsy to royalty based only on birthright. At the same time, he scatters tidbits of conservative guidance. At heart, Lee Lanning is a self-made realist who evaluates his seventy-year-plus journey through life to cull the pros and cons for lessons that simplify entry into adulthood.

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Col. Lanning

His target audience is teenagers. Occasionally his advice makes me recall Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, which is a good thing because Dear Allyanna sets a standard of behavior higher than normally expected of young adults.

It does so, however, without mentioning finger bowls or silver place settings. Lanning’s book might provide the exact guidance that our grand-kids need.

Practicing a regimen of “meds and treatments that nearly killed [him] before the disease could do so,” and fortified by a diet that defies imagination, he beat cancer and is alive today.

Dear Allyanna nicely wraps up Lee Lanning’s two Vietnam War memoirs: The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam, and Vietnam, 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal.

Lanning’s website is michaelleelanning.com

—Henry Zeybel

Sea Hunt by Dale Dye

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Dale Dye, the Marine Vietnam War veteran who made a name for him as Hollywood’s pre-eminent military technical adviser, is also an actor, director, and novelist. His fictional output includes seven well-received Shake Davis novels, and now—for the first time—a Young Adult novel, Seat Hunt: A Novel in the World of Shake Davis (Warriors Publishing Group, 184 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle).

Dye has not left his excellent storytelling behind in his adult novels. Sea Hunt is another well-written, engrossing page turner. Just because it is labelled a YA book, does not mean that this ancient adult did not find much to enjoy in it.

The main character, Shake’s daughter U.S. Navy Lt. Junior Grade Tracey Davis, “is well-occupied leading active duty sailors at the base Ocean Systems Office, but she’s hardly safe,” Dye writes. One day an old friend from her days working in Belize shows up looking for a girl they saved from sex traffickers in Central America.

The story begins at the New England Aquarium in Boston, with Tracey studying octopuses so she can better understand color patterning.  We meet Tracey in a weird. wavy image reflected in the tank glass.

“Shaggy and disheveled,” she says. “I look like Aquaman with boobs.”

Before this small novel is wrapped up, Tracey encounters a shark that rivals any we’ve seen portrayed by Hollywood and engages in gun battles with serious bad guys.

Dye writes this novel in accessible prose with a minimum of difficult Navy terminology. As a character, Tracey Davis is easy to identify with. And easy to root for. I found myself doing both.

Well done, Capt. Dye.  You have produced another winner.

–David Willson

On Blood Road by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, and the author the Ghosts of War series, which includes Lost at Khe Sanh and AWOL in North Africa.

His new YA novel, On Blood Road (Scholastic, 288 pp., $17.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) is one of the best books of any sort that I’ve read dealing with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the “Blood Road” of the title of this book.

Watkins has created a believable sixteen-year-old character named Taylor Sorenson who manages to get himself captured in South Vietnam during the war, made a prisoner of the VC, and marched toward the Hanoi Hilton. He does not make it there, but has many adventures in transit. Just about every bad thing that can happen to a person in that situation happens to the young man, including losing a leg.

Taylor is the son of one of the architects of the American War in Vietnam. He flies to Saigon with his mother to spend time with his father who is busy running the war. When the NVA find out, they see him as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations.

The author presents the reader with most of the usual things that a Vietnam War infantry novel would deal with. That includes John Wayne, Agent Orange, napalm, and Puff the Magic Dragon gunships. Taylor’s main captor is a young VC who speaks French, which Taylor is fluent in, so there is no need for them to speak Vietnamese.

The book is very poetically written, perhaps a bit more poetical that a typical sixteen year old would write, but Taylor is not a typical teenager in any way. He is against the war when he arrives in Vietnam, but that is no advantage to him. The publisher tells us that death “waits around every bend,” and that is certainly true in this book.

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On Blood Road is aimed at the teen-aged reader, but I found it very readable and informative and doubt that any teenager would struggle to read it. Adult readers would also find the book well worth reading.

I am glad that I got a chance to read this superb book and highly recommend it to young and old.

—David Willson

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

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The late Walter Dean Myers’ acclaimed 1988 Young Adult Vietnam War novel, Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 336 pp., $9.99, paper), is today being featured as assigned reading in high school English, history, and social studies classes across the nation.

While written in the first-person and appearing at first glance to be autobiographical, the story is actually a tribute to Myers’ brother, Thomas Wayne “Sonny” Myers, who died in Vietnam in 1968 and to whom the book is dedicated. It’s told through his eyes.

In the book, names have been changed to protect the innocent. But we easily understand the stories of main character Richie Perry and his comrades who serve in an unidentified unit in Vietnam. Though there are a few mechanical and continuity errors—including weapon caliber and nomenclature—Myers gives us a compact, easy-to-read book.

It’s a story told by a young black man in a predominately black unit in a decidedly racially mixed war. Yet it is a story free of the angst, bitterness, hatred, and racism so often found in other novels dealing with the same theme

Meyers begins as Perry finishes high school and realizes that there is no money in the family for college and that the mean streets hold no future. He believes that the military just might be a way out of town. His adventures through the selection and training processes are chronicled with quite readable dialogue.

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We get almost half way through the book before “fallen angels” are referred to. Myers uses the phrase as a metaphor for the random and senseless loss of life and innocence suffered in the war zone.

Some of Perry’s friends and some new guys are wounded, some go home, some stay and re-up. The story contains a balanced mix of experiences and recollections.

As a high school classroom exercise, the novel provides a suitable exposure to the battlefield and its denizens on both sides—as well as a platform for student discussions, conversations, and learning about family war experiences.

There is the potential for healing and sharing, as well as for enjoying a good story about a bunch of young men caught up in a nasty war.

–Tom Werzyn

Courageous Women of the Vietnam War by Kathryn J. Atwood

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Chicago Review Press, 240 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle), Kathryn Atwood examines the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and the Vietnam War (as Americans know it) from the perspectives of women from both sides—including the French who started it.

In this young adult book Atwood presents the war through the eyes of a French Army nurse captured by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu; a South Vietnamese revolutionary inspired by Ho Chi Minh; Joan Baez trapped in Hanoi during the Operation Linebacker II bombing; and eleven other vignettes.

Atwood’s accounts blend the women’s actions into an overall picture of the war. Therefore, the book covers material familiar to students of the war, but it also serves as a primer for younger readers. I was familiar with the lives of only four of the women. At the end of each chapter, Atwood lists two or three books suitable for further study on the topic she just covered.

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The book’s story line begins with the Viet Minh Revolution led by Ho Chi Minh, and progresses through the Ngo Dinh Diem Civil War and the machinations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In her book Atwood gives life to people who otherwise might be forgotten. For the most part, without wielding weapons, the women featured in the book faced dangers equal to those faced by many men who saw combat.

Atwood praises the women for their contributions to their countries. She writes about more American women than Vietnamese.

She is the author of three previous YA books about heroic women who served in World Wars I and II. “Young people might not believe they like history,” she says, “but [they] might be enticed toward interest in a particular historical woman if the narrative is compelling.”

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, Kathryn Atwood makes the personalities tick for readers of any age.

Her website is kathrynatwood.com

—Henry Zeybel