To Any Soldier by G.C. Hendricks & Kathryn Watson Quigg

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Any nineteen-year-old woman who can think and write like the character Ashley Beth Justice in To Any Soldier: A Novel of Vietnam Letters (iUniverse, 259 pp.; $17.95, paper; $5.99,Kindle) should have been scooped up and cherished for a lifetime.

Her letters comprise half of the book, which begins with one addressed “To Any Soldier” in Vietnam. She is in her first year of college. Lt. Jay Fox plucks her letter off his squadron’s bulletin board at Da Nang and answers it.

A Marine Corps A-6 pilot, Fox intellectually trails a step behind Ashley. Of course, bombing “Northern Gooks” (as he calls the enemy) and avoiding ground fire consume most of his attention. Ashley and Jay exchange letters throughout 1968.

The two fictitious characters evolved through a collaboration between co-authors Kathryn Watson Quigg and G.C. Hendricks. Back in the day, the authors filled roles similar to those of their fictional characters: Quigg attended college and Hendricks flew more than two hundred combat missions. The book includes lots of pictures of them and their surroundings at that time.

The letters exchanged between Ashley and Jay deal with subjects that stretch from war, destruction, and death to love, creation, and life. Despite the physical distance and opposing views they had on many topics of the era, the two fell in love. But that’s not how the story ends.

I enjoyed the book because Ashley and Jay address controversial arguments in a rational manner. With time to reflect between letters, their discussions lead them to learn from each other.

The authors’ backgrounds give the romance authenticity with which many veterans might easily agree.

They hit home with me.

—Henry Zeybel

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Bringing Vincent Home by Madeleine Mysko

Reviewing a book this long after it was published (in 2007) is unusual. But Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press, 2007; 182 pp., $14.95, paper) is an unusually compelling novel, and letting readers know about it ten years late still seems a lot better than not letting them know at all.

Author Madeleine Mysko has written a Vietnam War story that is remarkably true to life— but just as remarkably different from the conventional fiction of that war. Mysko served as an Army nurse whose wartime service was not in Vietnam but at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas—specifically in the center’s burn ward, then and now the Army’s main facility for treating soldiers with severe burn injuries. The burn unit is the setting for her novel, which is narrated by the middle-aged mother of one of the casualties being treated there.

Both the setting and the narrative voice are not the familiar ones in Vietnam War novels. The story takes place in a Texas hospital, not on the battlefields of Vietnam. It’s not told from the viewpoint of the generation that fought the war (or avoided it or protested it— that is, the author’s generation), but by a member of the previous generation, a woman who reached adulthood in the very different wartime America of World War II. For both those reasons Bringing Vincent Home reflects a different angle of vision, putting a new and illuminating light on the Vietnam War for today’s readers.

In the novel’s opening sentences, the narrator, Kitty Duvall, answers the phone in her modest home in Baltimore one day in August 1969 and is told by an Army casualty officer her that her son Vincent, the youngest of her three children, was wounded in Vietnam and will be evacuated to Japan and then to Texas. Three short paragraphs later, Kitty is walking off a plane in San Antonio, hoping to stay as close to her son as she can during his treatment.

In the 170-plus pages that follow, through Kitty’s eyes we witness Vincent’s physical and emotional ups and downs and are introduced to nurses, doctors, and chaplains who care for him through those swings. We meet her older son and her daughter, who has become an antiwar activist and whose certainties about the war clash with Kitty’s deep confusion about it.

We see relatives and girlfriends visiting other patients and glimpse their anguished efforts to deal with their men’s pain and disfigurement. We share Kitty’s memories and feelings, too, including the comfort she gets from her deep Catholic faith and her conflicted feeling about the same faith because it will not let her end her marriage to the abusive, alcoholic husband who abandoned the family many years before.

All of this comes across with perfect-pitch authenticity. Details of time, place, perspective, and emotion are all completely plausible. Kitty Duvall is as real as any fictional character I remember.

Madeleine Mysko

If I hadn’t known that the author was not a burn patient’s mother or anywhere close to Kitty’s age, I would have been certain I was reading real-life memories, not fiction—a narrative that is all the more powerful when we remember that nearly half a century after this story takes place, wounded American troops are still arriving in the burn unit from distant and controversial wars.

Madeleine Mysko has crafted a novel that is as believable as it is moving. I hope it will continue bringing Vincent home to readers for a long time to come.

The author’s website is mmauthor.com/bringing-vincent-home

—Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former Vietnam War correspondent, is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia; Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and 
Its Legacy; and, most recentlyFrom Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America.

Firebase by Mark Anthony Sullivan

Mark Anthony Sullivan served in an Americal Division field artillery unit in Vietnam. In Sullivan’s Firebase: A Novel of Wartime Suspense and Romance (306 pp., $14.75, paper; $5.99, Kindle) the main character, Mike Ward, also serves with that unit at a forward firebase.

Ward arrives in the Vietnam War zone as troop withdrawals are in full swing with the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization. It’s May 1970 and Ward is in the middle of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend who thinks that he should have stayed home and been a good boyfriend. That’s how she sees life.

Mike Ward had the option of serving in an Army Reserve appointment. His high morals caused him to see that as a copout, so off to Vietnam he goes.

He gets assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal) out of Chu Lai. He doesn’t realize until later that that’s the Americal’s numerical designation. The book provides much detail of what the life of a Spec. 4 assigned to field artillery in the Vietnam War is like.

There’s also a lot of detail about the girl he left behind and her anger at him for choosing the Army over what she saw as his obligations to her. The entire novel is told in letter format and Sullivan makes it work well. He tells us that he had plenty of letters to work with and that he relied on them for information, tone, and other details.

His evaluation of our efforts in Vietnam is simple: “We’re going absolutely nowhere.” The difference between the Vietnam War and World War II makes it difficult for the characters to see progress. No land is captured and held. A war measured in body counts seems to be a war with no progress.

The Paris Peace Talks are discussed and dismissed as pointless as the participants could barely decide on the shape of the table, let alone on anything of importance.

John Wayne gets a mention or two, and shit burning is discussed, as does Agent Orange. My Lai also comes up, as it was attached to the Americal Division in peoples’ minds. Even though it took place when our main character was home in law school, he somehow gets blamed.

There is a lot of ill feeling aimed at soldiers serving in the war. The notion seems to be that if they only chose not to go into the Army, there’d be no Vietnam War. As if it was that easy.

Sullivan in country

This is a serious novel, well-written and well-organized. It has an ending unlike any I’ve encountered  before in Vietnam War fiction. Mike Ward’s girlfriend manages to redeem herself, at least in my eyes, by doing something that doesn’t just border on magical realism, but tests my brain in all possible respects. I won’t spoil it for the prospective reader.

Suffice it to say that the ending took my breath away. I read it over and over again, trying to get it straight in my mind. I never did manage to wrap my mind around it.

That’s my fault, I’m sure.

—David Willson

Four Corners from LBJ by Marty Beebe

Marty Beebe, who served in the Vietnam War in 1969-70, is the author of the novels Orange Bug White Fender and Cussy Rode a ’34.  His latest book, Four Corners from LBJ (CreateSpace, 224 pp., $9.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is one of the strangest books I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

Beebe tells us it is a work of fiction. It seems to be a work of magical realism. The first half is mostly about a riot at LBJ in Vietnam. In this case, “LBJ” stands for Long Binh Jail. Spelling and sentence structure in this novel are erratic.

Daniel Beebe did the cover of this book in which a prison lookout tower dominates the top half, separated from the bottom half by concertina wire. The bottom half contains a map of the Four Corners area of the Southwest United States labeled “Navajo Reservation.”

Also listed on this map are the Ute Mountain Reservation, Mesa Verde National Park, San Juan National Forest, McGhee Park, Sunray Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock, and Farmington. I list them because they are the only way I can get at the subject of the second half of this strange book.

I’ve read a lot about riots in LBJ (the jail) and believe the pages devoted to that subject are fairly accurate. There is a lot of violence on both sides, including the guards and the inmates. Fire hoses and black rubber hoses are used for beatings.

Private Baker is the featured character in the novel and sort of holds the narrative together. The other main character is “a full-blooded Apache” named Sau who serves the purpose of being a mystical and spiritual guide to Baker when he is magically transported from LBJ in South Vietnam to the area of the United States featured on the map.

This is a short book with large print. It is one of the few I’ve read that attempts to deal in a serious way with riots in prison camps in South Vietnam. If you are interested in that elusive subject, read this book. It doesn’t take long to read. But be warned, it is fiction.

—David Willson

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

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Laura Harrington has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, as well as Alice Bliss, a novel that deals with the Iraq War. Her new book, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 224 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is set in 1970 when Billy Flynn returns home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot who had been shot down and very badly burned.

The only survivor of that helicopter crash, Billy returns to his family in upstate New York where his adoring kid sister tries valiantly to help him regain the use of his right hand and arm. Billy had been a brilliant artist, drawing birds with a pencil he can’t even hold with his crippled right hand.

This is one of those tragedy-of-war books that has tears on every page and no easy answers or miracles for Billy Flynn or his sister. There is also a mystery: Billy’s pre-war girlfriend disappears and is never heard from again.

The VA hospital where Billy receives inadequate care is rat-infested and his care givers are skeptical that anything serious is wrong with him. They all but accuse him of faking his injury. Plus, the VA only pays for half of Billy’s rehab; his parents go bankrupt trying to pay for the other half.

What’s more, Billy and his best friend Harlow are treated by people outside the VA as though they are baby killers and monsters. They spend a lot of time drinking away their time and pain.

There is a big discussion about chemicals that the Army used in Vietnam. “There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste.” Billy says to his father. “Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”

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Laura Harrington

This is as bleak a novel about the Vietnam War as I’ve read. Nothing turns out well for anyone. No good comes out of the war either. Harrington—who teaches play writing at MIT—and I see eye to eye about that.

Those who see the war as having done a lot of good should go elsewhere for their reading.

The author’s website is lauraharringtonbooks.com

—David Willson

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson