After the War – Vietnam Veterans Fiction

vietnamfictionCathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library.

tribeI recently finished reading the excellent non-fiction book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016) by Sebastian Junger, which explores the longing for connection of those suffering from PTSD, especially today’s veterans. The following challenges faced by Vietnam veterans and their circles showcase, in intimate detail, another group of veterans who struggled with the consequences of their service to their country.

ha-haDue to his injury in the Vietnam war, people think Howard  is disturbed rather than just unable to speak. But we hear his words clearly as he narrates the novel The Ha- Ha by Dave King (2005). Howard Kapostash is pulled into the care of 9-year-old Ryan, son of an ex-girlfriend, Sylvia,  who is going back into rehab. Unable to speak or write, Howard’s life revolves around his roommates and work he does at a local convent, including gardening, where he finds beauty and purpose.

When I’m alone, I attack the underbrush… I search for anything unruly to subdue.

While there are some humorous moments in the story as Ryan and Howard work out their relationship, the title, the Ha-Ha, comes from the gardening term – a trick of the eye that conceals a break in the landscape. Throughout the book there are “tricks,” or  information just out of sight, so that we learn about Howard as he comes through his own transformation. Overall a hopeful story, it is not saccharine. Dave King is an artist and published poet and this debut novel was on several “Best of”  book lists in 2005 and won him a 2006-07 Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The healing found in nature is integral to this hidden gem, The Beauty of Ordinary Things by Harriet Scott Chessman (2013).

It was as if Isabel had introduced me to a new country, one where I could always go…. A landscape isn’t just outside you. It changes how you look at things.

Obeautyofordinarynly 142 pages, this lovely story, set in New England, gives us insight into the challenges of twenty-somethings in the mid-1970s –  Vietnam veteran Benny, Benedictine novice Sister Clare and Isabel, who is dear to them both.

Sr. Clare has questions and desires -she loves her community in rural New Hampshire and she loves her friends.

When you have love, in whatever form it comes, you should just say yes to it, and keep saying yes, until you say your last word and breathe your last breath entirely.

As he struggles with reintegration, Benny digs deeply to find his view of the world.

With a camera, you can only take pictures of what’s in front of you, right here on earth…. I think I can’t truly see what’s in front of me sometimes until I can look through lens.

We watch these young people find ways, poignant and painful, to move through their decisions with hope.

Like Annie Dillard, Chessman plumbs the mysteries of the spirit and celebrates the quiet grace notes of the earth…. a meditation on two people seeking their right place in the world – Debra Dean (from the back cover)

houseinearnestFrom the White Mountains to the Seacoast, with many local landmarks as well, A House in Earnest (2000) is a much edgier work than Terry Farish‘s recent novels. This passionate and disturbing book captures a different part of our society in the years following Vietnam.

The book spans over 25 years, after Deborah (Portsmouth girl) and Christy (Vietnam veteran and history professor at a small NH college) meet in Portsmouth, the hometown of his buddy, who died in Vietnam. Subsistence living in the North Country and an unusual extended family – birthing babies in the woods and mountain-wise children – is the backdrop for the hurts of a generation played out. The war colors their existence with stories of Vietcong tunnels underneath the base camp hospitals and stockpiles of rice.  Through out the novel are the challenges of Christy’s increasing isolation.

Farish’s descriptions are picture perfect:

As he always was in the New Hampshire woods, Christy was conscious of his footfalls.  He was conscious of the texture of the dirt. Now the soft bed of pine needles. Now the hard, dry dirt impacted with roots… the sound of his boots or the soundlessness….

Betrayals, lies and misunderstanding were born of trauma and inexperience, but despairing individuals are held together by their imperfect relationships.

Human relationships pose the same threat as a live grenade, liable to re-explode at any moment. (from the back cover)

A local author, Terry Farish has written about veterans and refugees for over 20 years. In May 2016, PPMTV filmed an author interview on her latest young adult book Either the Beginning or the End of the World (2016), which focused on the relationship between an Iraqi war veteran and the daughter of Cambodian refugees. Many of her novels for adults & young adults are set locally and have characters  trying to both escape and embrace themselves.

speedoflightAnother  saga of a Vietnam veteran turned college professor is The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas, translated from the Spanish (2006). Spanish professor Rodney meets the narrator, an aspiring novelist from Spain, in Urbana, Illinois. Their friendship is intense for just several months from 1987-1988, but the impact lasts for years.

We see Rodney’s struggle through the eyes of his friend – a unique view of a foreigner seeing the personal cost of an unpopular war.

Neither could he have expected that the same country that had demanded he ignore his own conscience, not desert to Canada, fulfill his duty as an American and go to a despicable, faraway war, should now shrink from his presence as though he were a criminal or had the plague…..(as) if they were guilty of something, were guilty because of the brutal circumstances of a war they’d been pushed into….”

Rodney is really the narrator’s research subject and over the decades is in and out of his consciousness.   Tragedy strikes both men but only one is able to move forward in his life.

Traumatic injuries have many faces from veterans and athletes to victims of crime or accidents.  Research both on the brain and the ways that those injured integrate in society are ongoing.  Through science and compassion we can make the “homecoming” more complete for the next generation of Howards, Bennys, Christys and Rodneys.

As a related read, check out this lovely article:

How one of Gen. George Patton’s grandsons helps vets with PTSD
The Christian Science Monitor, November 2016


Hidden gems is a blog series by Cathy Okhuysen of the Public Services staff at PPL, lover of historical and general fiction and contemplative music singer. If you have suggestions for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her at ccokhuysen@cityofportsmouth.com.

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