Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Vietnam War (My Reading, Part 2)

I spent quite a bit of time this weekend lost in Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried. At times it is funny, while at others heartbreaking. I cannot help but think of my dad and the time he spent in Vietnam during the American war there. So many lives were lost. So many lives changed, as they are with any war. No one comes back from war without scars. Not even Paco.

This past week participants for the read-a-long of Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann were asked to read chapters 3 and 4. The novel takes us from Vietnam, where Paco was the sole survivor in an attack that wiped out his entire unit, to his recovery and eventual attempt to rejoin society back home in the U.S. Heinemann is a gifted storyteller as well as writer. While middle two chapters are not quite as raw as the first two, they still capture the mood and tone of what life must have been like for many soldiers who were trying to adjust to a "normal" life after the war.

1. Do you think Paco is ready to rejoin the living and will he easily re-enter “normal” life?

I think Paco is as ready as he can be given his circumstances. Despite the pain and medication he is on, he appears to do quite well for himself, at least in terms of going through the motions. He has his priorities set: finding a job and a place to sleep. It will not be easy for him, no doubt. He has a lot going against him. Not having a clear of idea of what is going on in his head, it is hard to know what psychological issues Paco may be dealing with and how he is working through those, if at all.

2. How do you think the lively atmosphere of Rita’s Tender Tap affects Paco?

The environment seemed to overwhelm him and so he made as quick a retreat as he could without seeming unfriendly. Having come from a war where life and death were paramount, stepping back into society where trivial issues are what seem to be important is not so easy to do. Paco most likely feels out of place, unsure of where he fits in anymore.

3. Do you think Heinemann made the right choice in narrator, or do you believe Paco should be telling his own story?

I think the author's use of an outside narrator offers the reader a necessary glimpse at what those Paco encounters are thinking. The reader is able to see just what obstacles Paco encountered on his journey and gets a feel for how society responded to someone like Paco: a soldier from an unpopular war, an outsider, and a person with a disability. Most people wanted him to be on his way so they could get back to their own lives.

4. Do you think the side stories about the medic who found Paco, the bus driver, and Mr. Elliot, etc., add to the narrative or take too much attention away from Paco, who seems to hide in the background during these asides?

I found the side stories interesting and informative. As I mentioned in my response the question #3, such narrative provides more insight into what Paco faced. What struck me about Mr. Elliot was his struggle with his own demons from war. It was a different war than the one Paco fought in, but seeing Paco, brought back those memories for Mr. Elliot and the reader is offered yet another impression of how war impacts individuals, whether from a solider or civilian perspective. In the diner owner, we discover a man who connects instantly with Paco, having been a soldier himself. He understands what Paco is going through and offers to help. Whereas the people in the barbershop saw Paco as an outsider, a man with a disability, would was more a burden than a help. They wanted nothing to do with him. All of the different perspectives offered in the book capture the variety of ways a soldier may have been treated upon his return home after war.

5. How do you feel about Paco at this point in the book?

I rather like Paco and have much empathy for what he is going through. I think, at this point, he is just going through the motions to survive and work through the pain he is suffering. The reader is more of an observer to the events happening to Paco, rather than being in his head. This has its advantages, as mentioned above, but also the disadvantage of not letting the reader know just where his head is through all of this. There are so many unanswered questions still about Paco and who he is exactly. I am curious to know if my impression of him will change as the final two chapters of the novel unfold.

Leaving Paco for the time being, I turned my attention to the final story in Nam Le's collection of short stories called The Boat.

Escape does not come easy. Vietnamese people fled Vietnam after the war, trying to get away from the communists. This is the story of Mai, Quyen and Quyen's six year old son, Truong. Sixteen year old Mai meets Quyen and Troung on the crowded boat, when Quyen takes Mai under her wing. Mai takes an instant liking to the young Truong, whose eyes are always distant.

Their escape is fraught with difficulties: a storm, failing engines and the heat above deck. There is little food and hardly any water. Sickness and death are all around them.

Nam Le's story, The Boat, is not an easy story to read. The characters' journey is described in raw terms. Relief comes in Mai's memories of her father and family, but only slightly. Their story too, is a sad one. Even in the midst of the suffering, I couldn't help but be reminded of the strength of the human spirit. This is a story that will haunt my dreams tonight, no doubt.

I had hoped to have Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart's The Other Side read for today, but I was unable to get to it. It is a graphic novel that tells the tale of two soldiers during the American War in Vietnam, each on the opposite side. Look for that next Sunday.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. Paco's Story is amazing, as is The Things They Carried. I've always been really into WWII, but I am really enjoying the exploration of Vietnam. These books are all so raw. I look forward to reading more about Paco.

  2. These both seem to be very emotional and powerful books. I really want to read them because my knowledge of the Vietnam war and Vietnam is quite limited.

  3. I appreciate your thoughts here, particularly on THE BOAT, which is in my TBR pile. Sounds pretty powerful.

  4. I like your impressions of Paco and the narrator. I'm glad you are enjoying the journey so far.

  5. I recently bought a copy of The Things They Carried, and am very much looking forward to reading it. I am glad to have read your thoughts on Paco's story and will be checking out to continue hearing what you think!

  6. It seems like we had some of the same answers or thoughts regarding Paco and the story. I also enjoy getting the view points from different people as the meet and see Paco.

    On a funny note..last night eating dinner I had this book on the table next to me and my husband (who has no idea what the book is about and was trying to be funny) said " That Paco..isn't he finished with his story yet?" lol

  7. Hi Wendy, I want to read this one too. I read Sandy's review on The Things They Carried yesterday morning, and there and then, I bought the book from Book Depository.

  8. Isn't The Things they Caried a fascinating book? I read snippets of it while in college and then the book as a whole more recently. I'd also recommend Phillip Caputo's A Rumor of War as an interesting companion to TTTC. I haven't heard of Paco's Story but will add it to my list.

  9. I'd hoped to read The Things They Carried for Kim's read-a-long, but unfortunately, I haven't had time to start it yet. :(

    I can't wait for your thoughts after finishing Paco's Story. It was even more powerful for me the second time around.

  10. I need to get my hands on The Things They Carried, but Paco's Story sounds worthwhile too.

  11. Sandy - I am enjoying revisiting Vietnam again too. Now that I'm done with Paco's Story, I'm thinking of slipping the book to my dad when he visits this next month. I don't know if it's one he's read yet.

    Staci - Yes, both are definitely emotional books and definitely worth reading. The Boat has other stories as well, just not about Vietnam. It's a really good collection. I hope to review some of the other stories from it in the near future.

    Marie - It's a great collection of stories. I'm really impressed with it so far.

    Serena - It's been such an interesting reading experience. I'm glad you let me come along for the ride!

    Heather - I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to read The Things They Carried. I should have read it years ago.

  12. Kris - LOL Your husband's funny. :-) It definitely was an interesting way to tell the story.

    Alice - I hope you will like it as much as I did, Alice!

    Trish - It was such a great book. I want to read some of his nonfiction work now.

    Anna - It sounds like you may get your chance before the year is out. I saw the post about a possible read-along on the challenge website. :-)

    Stacy - Both are worth reading, if you get the chance!


Thank you for taking the time to visit Musings of a Bookish Kitty. Don't be shy! I would love to hear from you. Due to a recent increase in spam, I will be moderating all comments for the foreseeable future. Please be patient with me as it may take a few hours before I am able to approve your comment.