Red Stick One by Kenneth Kirkeby

Kenneth Kirkeby served in the Marine Corps as an intelligence specialist in the Vietnam War. He draws from that experience in Red Stick (K. Kirkeby, 272 pp., $15.95, paper), a fine thriller/adventure novel.

The book opens in April of 1970 on “the plateau” in Vietnam. I love precise writing in fiction and this novel is written with precision on every page. Whether it’s a recently shot deer being skinned out or coffee being made, the reader is involved in all the details and they are rendered in exact and descriptive language.

We are introduced to Staff Sergeant Virgil Cleary on the first page. In the course of this book we learn a lot about him. As the novel opens Virgil Cleary is a lance corporal in his fifth month in country, and the point man and leader of a five-man recon team.

I was immediately involved and eager to learn the outcome of the team’s struggle to reach the plateau amid rock slides and deep finger ridges. Things do not go well, but it is not until deep into the novel that we revisit this episode in Virgil’s life. Before that, we spend a lot of time with Virgil as he evades the enemy and eventually is rescued.

Virgil is a man of few words, (he is half Creek Indian and was raised in isolation by his grandmother), but occasionally offers profound statements. One example: “War is mostly about having friends and losing them.”

After we hear about Virgil’s boyhood and his adoption (of sorts) by a foster father, the novel becomes an on-the-road story novel in which Virgil journeys across the country (mostly hitchhiking) from the east to west pursuing the killer of his foster father. He has many adventures. We encounter a Vietnam veteran who sells guns in Butte, Montana, and tells Virgil that “guys at the airport are spitting at guys like you and me when we are rotated back.”

This rousing thriller/adventure novel of pursuit has a hero who is easy to root for. I know I did. He’s a little guy, an underdog, half Indian with dark skin, who is often underestimated by adversaries. I’d like to see him in another novel.

I am a big fan of the outdoor adventure novels of C. J. Box, and Kirkeby—a VVA member—belongs in that lofty league. I highly recommend this novel to those who are looking for a book to take their mind off of their troubles. It is the perfect escape from the humdrum.

—David Willson

The Happiness Jar by Samantha Tidy

In the acknowledgments section of The Happiness Jar (Storytorch Press, 336 pp., $34.95), author Samantha Tidy thanks Gary McKay, the author of of In Good Company and The Men Who Persevered, “for all things Vietnam and beyond.”  Tidy and McKay are Australians, and much of this book is set in the land down under. One of the main characters, Brian Hudson, is an Australian Vietnam veteran, “struggling with the long term effects of the war and has been missing since he walked out on his wife Beth and their two children in the dead of the night twenty years ago.”

Brian and Beth’s daughter Rachel dies of cystic fibrosis at the age of twenty–seven, “intentionally leaving behind secrets that push each of her remaining family to question what it is they want from life.”

This is a book of journeys—the journey of Matt, Rachel’s bricklayer son who has not made much of his life, and the journey of Beth, the mother, who had devoted all of her life to keeping Rachel alive as she is fighting cystic fibrosis. Rachel’s will propels Matt into the vast Australian outback where he makes a surprising discovery in an Aboriginal settlement. Beth journeys to Varanasi, India, to the banks of the sacred Ganges, where she, a woman frightened of filth, enters the river and disperses Rachel’s ashes into the “silver blanket” of the sacred river.

Samantha Tidy

Samantha Tidy

The novel contains much that relates to the plight of the Australian Vietnam veterans. Flashbacks are called “khaki-colored memories.” Brian, the father and husband who disappeared, is afflicted with them. I won’t act as a spoiler of the story of a family destroyed by the forces of the Vietnam War, but I will say that this one of the best Australian novels related to the what Tidy calls “war nobody would talk about.”

There are many powerful scenes in this novel. My favorite comes near the end when Beth experiences Kundalini, her dark night of the soul, through eating a very spicy vindaloo.

Tidy uses many puzzling and flavorful Australian words in the book. One example is  “Esky,” an Aussie word for a beer cooler.

Tidy does a marvelous job creating and bringing alive the alien world of Australia for this American reader. Her prose is so evocative I could feel the ever-present flies crawling on my eyes and ears as I read the book.

I highly recommend this book to those who know little or nothing of Australia’s contribution to what we imprecisely call the American War in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.samanthatidy.com  For purchasing info, go to www.storytorch.com.au/publications

—David Willson