As a scared, homesick 19-year-old G.I. in Vietnam, from a large New Jersey Catholic family, Hensler came across a de facto...



As a scared, homesick 19-year-old G.I. in Vietnam, from a large New Jersey Catholic family, Hensler came across a de facto orphanage--stern middle-aged sister Hoa, gentle young Sister Tuan, and ten ragged, malnourished children in a derelict church. The story of the group and what he did for them became a Christopher-Award-winning film in 1982; now, under the same title, he tells it as his coming-of-age and embrace of ""unconditional love."" Unfortunately, clichÉ follows clichÉ in the stilted telling. A first medic buddy, who instructs hospital-volunteer Hensler (and shares a virginity-losing debacle), speaks his love and dies. Brazen young watch-thief Tron turns out to be the orphanage's provider and, when Hensler is shamed into helping, becomes his black-market partner. (Almost the only line that rings utterly true is buddy Brian's ""That old lady knew she had a sweet little Catholic sucker in her church the minute she saw you."") Hensler relocates the orphanage--into a dangerous flight-path. He relocates the group again, in Saigon; is wounded and sent home; recovered, feels ""empty and alone."" ""The only place and time in my entire life when I felt needed and wanted came rushing out of my memories the day I found a letter waiting for me from sister Hoa."" So he reenlists. To be stationed in Saigon, he claims knowledge of ""forensic pathology""--finding himself, to his horror, at the morgue (some ghastly details). Under the stress of his duties there, and his after-hour work maintaining the ever-expanding orphanage, he turns to drugs. A beautiful older nurse, taking to him and the orphans, lovingly initiates him into sex. But the drug problem escalates. The relationship with the nurse tails out. (Both decide, complacently, that they were using each other.) Sister Hoa slaps him for irresponsibility. Lovely ten-year-old Thom, the mute light-of-the-orphanage (whom Hensler had wanted to adopt), dies in his arms during a VC attack, speaking his name. Headed home, he begs and is granted Sister Hoa's forgiveness: there is no ""proper way,"" she tells him; he should forget ""learn and grow."" (Later, he relates in the epilogue, he tried to return--and couldn't.) Hensler is not without self-understanding--he frequently compares the orphans to his younger siblings, for instance--but the vehicle is too feeble to convey it, except fitfully.

Pub Date: Feb. 24, 1984


Page Count: -

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1984