It’s 1968, and Pfc. Jared Christopher, barely 20, is stationed in Quang Ngãi. Jared isn’t like some of his fellow soldiers, who hate the local villagers and associate them with the Viet Cong. He quickly befriends a young girl and street vendor, Dam, and later visits an orphanage to drop off food, baby powder and other supplies. The various combat assaults are harrowing: The infantrymen trek through the dense jungle and are often killed by the Viet Cong. But Jared also faces resentment from American soldiers, who view him as a VC sympathizer when he takes in and even hopes to adopt Quang, a Vietnamese boy orphaned by the war. The novel can be a dark, disheartening affair: Jared loses a few of his close friends in combat, and one man in particular, whom Jared greatly admires, is introduced and killed in quick succession. Jared feels overwhelmingly guilty about his own actions, including shooting a boy not yet in his teens. But the protagonist’s good deeds—sitting with a small family and helping polish rice or not telling fellow troops about a woman, possibly a VC, and her newborn baby—give him a sense of purpose and serve as a counterbalance to all the violence. Norris extends the horrors of war to the Vietnamese jungles, filled with giant mosquitoes and leeches, whose knack for digging into the skin is relayed in all its stomach-churning glory. Norris effectively conveys the loss of hope in Vietnam and villagers’ loss of trust in soldiers who don’t respect them. But Jared brings humanity to the story; even Quang, who stays at the Army base, escapes from the orphanage to be with him.
Authentically details a ferocious year in Vietnam and delivers an unforgettable ending.