Three young Americans, haunted and buoyed by family legacies, meet during the Vietnam War in this debut historical novel.
In the 1960s, Dion Murphy is a star middle linebacker descended from a long line of soldiers dating back to the Civil War. He desperately wants to live up to their accomplishments and the family’s reputation for honor, so he stays at Bryant Military Academy, where his relatives went, even after he’s accepted into the considerably more prestigious West Point; later, he turns down a chance at a pro football career to serve in the Marines during the Vietnam War. Cathy Addison has the soul of a caregiver, much like her courageous, compassionate ancestor, who was murdered by Native Americans. Like Dion, she’s also attached to the virtue of honor; as a result, she attempts to remain true to her fiance, despite his boorish behavior. She becomes a nurse in the Navy medical corps and gets deployed to Vietnam. Norman Coddington is born to a prominent family in Boston but suffers due to a chillingly cold mother and absentee father. He wrestles with existential angst, which expresses itself as a reckless embrace of risk, which led him to Vietnam. All three characters encounter, in one way or another, the savage lessons of war and are transformed by them. At one point, for example, Norman reflects on his dreams of war glory: “Yet now those fantasies meant little in the face of the harsh realities of combat, and he’d become aware that he was a foolish lad when he’d spawned those ideals.” Overall, this novel is first and foremost a tale about grappling with one’s ineluctable past. Hardy masterfully depicts how the weight of family history can accumulate over successive generations, and how such a legacy can be either a guiding compass or an oppressive yoke. He also deftly captures the barbarous reality of war. The three characters’ stories ultimately intersect, but only very late in the novel, so each plot maintains its own autonomous life. This is a long book, though, at more than 750 pages, due in part to the author’s liberal expansion of side plots. Also, readers may find that Cathy’s naïveté when it comes to her suitors defies credulity.
A sensitively rendered story about the impact of the past on the future, and about the morally clarifying effects of war.