A debut historical novel offers a wide-lens account of the Vietnam War.
In 1998, 50-year-old Mark Cameron finds himself back in his hometown of Helena, Montana, haunted by memories of the Vietnam War (though not as troubled as some, as his investigations into the postwar lives of his old friends will reveal). Mark is not the lone protagonist of this story: the tale bounces through time and space to follow the trajectories of three soldiers drawn irrevocably into that convoluted conflict. As a high school student with friends of divergent political beliefs, Mark is unsure what to think about the war. He assumes that by joining the Navy Reserve, he will be able to keep out of combat. Unfortunately, he will soon end up in the “brown water Navy” of gunboats patrolling the rivers of Vietnam. JT Johnson is the son of a California developer whose familial feuds with the head of the draft board lead to JT’s conscription into the Navy Reserve. Le Van Dat is a peasant boy when he joins the Viet Minh to fight the French in 1948, though over the course of decades, he rises to the rank of general in the North Vietnamese Army. The ever changing landscape of the war causes the paths of these soldiers to cross, and it ultimately makes them reconsider just what it is that each of them is fighting for. Smith writes in a conversational prose that mimics the dialogue of his characters: “I know you think of the service as prison. Well, that kind of duty in Nam is worse than prison. That’s like being in prison and fighting for your life.” By following several characters from multiple sides of the conflict before, during, and after the war, the author attempts to provide an empathetic explanation of the motivations of all involved. But too much time is spent on the prewar lives of Mark and JT, and the book’s conclusions are hardly groundbreaking. Nevertheless, those interested in the psychological tumult of the Vietnam generation should enjoy this wide-ranging novel.
An ambitious tale that attempts to capture the epic size of the Vietnam conflict.