In his debut novel, Lee capably delivers an untold chronicle of the Vietnam War for military enthusiasts and anti-war readers alike.
Lee’s protagonists are “smokejumpers,” U.S. Forest Service firefighters who daringly parachute into remote regions of the American West to battle forest fires. In 1961, officers in the CIA see this as a perfect skillset and hope to use the college-age daredevils as part of America’s undeclared war in Laos. The author, a former smokejumper, smartly focuses on three recruits—Thanasis Mavros, Charlie Mazzarelli and Charles Stewart Parnell “Dog” Touhey—and their interactions with various natives during their decadelong tour of duty. For this trio, the new job means excitement and good money in an exotic foreign land. Their experiences mirror the United States’ overall secret mission in the Southeast Asian country, fought largely with deniable, foreign proxies in order to avoid a potentially nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. At first, the smokejumpers serve as “kickers,” shoving supplies rigged with parachutes out of aircraft to help the Meo, a primitive, native tribe that’s attempting to disrupt supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The tribesmen are waging a guerrilla war against the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces. Before long, the smokejumpers find themselves training the Meo to jump behind enemy lines. But in the end, mounting losses, self-serving policies and betrayal lead to disillusionment among the smokejumpers left standing. Lee, a retired lawyer, has done meticulous research, partly based on interviews with surviving real-life smokejumpers. His engrossing novel highlights the sacrifices of those who didn’t receive proper credit for their covert-ops services decades ago. The author primarily tells their saga in a straightforward, chronological manner, but he also cleverly weaves in a subplot about a smokejumper listed as missing in action who isn’t identified until late in the novel. Overall, his characters’ evolutions while in-country are heartbreakingly believable.
A riveting tale of an American tragedy that’s packed with adventure and local color.