Sixteen thousand, five hundred and ninety-two American soldiers died in Vietnam in 1968. Chris Crowe’s Death Coming Up the Hill is a homefront story about that year, told in haiku form: 976 of them to be exact, equaling 16,592 syllables. Put like that, it sounds gimmicky—but it doesn’t read like that at all.
Seventeen-year-old Ashe lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his parents, who have nothing in common—his father is a racist, his mother is an anti-war and pro-civil rights activist: “I was six years old / when I realized that my / parents didn’t love / each other.” They got married because she was pregnant, and although they’ve always made it very clear to Ashe that he is cherished, loved and wanted, feeling like he’s the source of their misery is still a hard thing to live with.
He’s facing war on almost every front: In Vietnam, through his mother’s activism, in his history class, in the weekly tally of dead American soldiers; through civil rights, his parents’ conflicting views as well as the nightly news; through the cold war between his parents. And then two more things happen: He starts dating Angela, the just-relocated-from-California daughter of a political science professor at ASU, and his mother gets pregnant again…but not by Ashe’s father.
Ashe, as the narrator, is the most well-drawn of all the characters; his willingness and ability to see his mother, especially, as a person rather than as a mother is unusual, but not unbelievable. It’s always clear that he has more in common with her—although his anti-war stance is more about not wanting to be drafted than about his political beliefs—than with his father, and so his empathy and his understanding make a lot of sense, emotionally as well as intellectually. He realizes, though, in his interactions with Angela, that he has inherited some less-savory traits from his father, and he actively works to combat them.
Appropriately, he uses a lot of military terms to describe his home life—“So I grew up in / divided territory, / a home with clearly / defined boundaries / that my parents rarely crossed. / Most of the time we / lived under a cease- / fire interrupted by / occasional flare- / ups.”—and the vocabulary, while simple, is clear and crisp and careful. Crowe’s only real misstep is the moment in which Ashe comes right out and says that his parents’ war parallels Vietnam—in that moment, Ashe’s voice morphs into the voice of a high school English teacher—but it is a brief moment, and it isn’t long before readers will fall back under his spell. The phrase “coming up the hill” is repeated a few times, used in a different way each time, and when it appears for the last time on the final page, it’s heartbreakingly, gut-wrenchingly effective. (And even more so after reading the Historical Note.)
It’s the story of a loving son, brother and boyfriend, over the course of a year in which the world lost a whole lot of sons, brothers and boyfriends. Ashe is just one among thousands—one story, one life—but in focusing so closely on him, his loved ones, his motivations and struggles as well as theirs, it makes the fact that each one of the syllables in the book represents another boy, another family, another life, that much more powerful.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.