Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Vietnam War Novel in Haiku Makes Me Feel Every One Of Its 16, 592 Syllables

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For 17-year-old Ashe Douglas, 1968 is a year of confusion, fear, and anxiety.  With war raging in Vietnam, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers every day, it's difficult to feel hope about the country's future.  At home, his parents' constant battles are escalating.  Ashe's mother is a peace-loving protester, while his father's fierce patriotism manifests itself in hot-blooded, racist outbursts.  They're opposites, still married for the sake of their only child.  Not only does Ashe worry about their increasing eruptions at home, but he's terrified of being drafted into a violent conflict of which he wants no part.

When a pretty new girl walks into Ashe's Tempe, Arizona, high school, things start looking up.  The blonde "goddess" has her own war woes, but together, she and Ashe might be able to make it through their challenges.

Then, a new crisis bombs Ashe's family.  This time, he fears total destruction.  With things coming to a head both at home and abroad, Ashe will have to make some very, very tough decisions about life, love, and what it truly means to be a hero.

By all rights, Death Coming Up the Hill, a new YA novel by Chris Crowe, should feel gimmicky.  The entire thing is, after all, written in haiku, with each  poetic syllable representing one of the 16, 592 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War during 1968, its deadliest year.  The book really should feel gimmicky.  And yet it doesn't.  The story's unique format gives it a clean freshness that makes it both impacting and memorable.  Maybe it's because of my uncle, Joe Whitby (pictured at left), who was killed in Quang Tri Province in 1967, but I really felt each of those syllables.  In addition to the book's format, I liked its sympathetic characters, its plot surprises, and its setting.  It was fun for me to read about local hot spots like Pete's Fish and Chips (I was just at the Mesa location a few hours ago!).  Overall, the book's pretty depressing (especially the last two lines, which were taken from a real Vietnam soldier's letters home), but its authenticity touched me.  Deeply.  Death Coming Up the Hill is a quick, compelling read, one I highly recommend.       

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't really think of anything.  Can you?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (no F-bombs), violence, and references to sex and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Death Coming Up the Hill from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Thank you!

4 comments:

  1. I agree on all counts! A beautiful, heart-rending book that's not gimmicky at all. Gorgeously written and the last few lines get you right in the gut. But I was also left with the feeling that Ashe had other choices rather than signing up for the army at the end. Maybe I misread it. Would love to discuss in person sometime!

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    1. His decision WAS pretty abrupt and extreme, but it also seemed inevitable -- the kind of grand, not necessarily well thought out decision an anxious, desperate teenage kid would make.

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  2. I might have to read this one. Chris Crowe is from Tempe but went to McClintock High. As you know, I went to McClintock for two years and then Tempe High for the last two. High school and the Viet Nam War are all intermixed in my memories from that time period. There were indeed Tempe High grads who died in Nam. It was real as you so readily know. I also went along when some of those young men were dropped off at Sky Harbor to catch their flight to military service having lost the draft number raffle.

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    1. Because of the novel's format, it's a quick read. Depressing, but also thought-provoking and real. I liked it. You're welcome to borrow my copy next time you're in town.

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