Monthly Archives: February 2018

THE GREAT ALONE


Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans In American Society

Click for more information about their abysmal homecoming reception and lack of medical and psychological help.

Sergeant Allbright –

You are a hard man to find. I am Earl Harlan.

My son, Bo, wrote many letters home about his friendship with you. I thank you for that.

In his last letter, he told me that if anything happened to him in that piece of shit place [Vietnam], he wanted you to have his land up here in Alaska.

It isn’t much. Forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. But a hardworking man can lives off the land up here, away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the lower Forty-Eight. . . . . . . .

Ernt Allbright, unlike his friend, Bo, did return to his family after years in a Vietnamese POW camp; scarred in so many ways. He returned to countrymen projecting their hatred of the war on the emotionally and physically damaged Vietnam War veterans. Vets returned to families that became fearful of their soldier experiencing frightening “depression, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, angry outbursts, anxiety, and paranoia.”

Ernt and Cora Allbright along with their daughter, Leni (Lenora) represent a family struggling to make a postwar life together; and failing miserably. The happy go-lucky Ernt failed to return from Vietnam. In his stead, a surly, distempered shell of his former self arrived. Unable to tame his demons, Ernt has developed a chronic history of unemployment and alcohol abuse. But these failings are not the worst of his new personality traits. When something triggers his inner demons, Cora, adept at hiding the abuse from Leni,  becomes his punching bag. Much like other abusive marriages, a sweet honeymoon and serial apologies diminishes the beatings. The cycle repeats itself over and over; exacerbated by the dark of night.

For Ernt, Earl Harlan’s letter and offer of a remote refuge seems like the perfect answer to all his troubles; a promise of brighter future. A place where he can make a life without interference of any kind. A place he is sure that he can be free of those things that make him fly off the handle.

“Think of it,” Dad said, lifted out of his seat by enthusiasm. “A house that’s ours. That we own. . . We have dreamed of it for years, Cora. Live a simpler life away from all the bullshit down here. We could be free.”

With little regard for the ambivalent feelings of his wife and child, Ernt packs the family into their beat-up VW bus, hoists a flag -Alaska Or Bust – and heads to what he sees as nirvana. A family about as prepared for the harsh subsistence life as a cub scout leading an Everest excursion.

Arriving in Alaska and dumbstruck by the vastness and the beauty, the family stops at Large Marge Birdsall’s Trading Post/General Store looking for directions to their new home. Ernt announces proudly that they are going to be living full time on the island at Bo Harlan’s old place! It doesn’t take long for Large Marge, a former big city attorney, to spot blatant ineptitude and an ample slice of arrogance as well as two women not excited about living in Alaska.

Marge is also aware that Bo Harlan’s run-down one room shack is “on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on [the Kenai] peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you.”

The isolation and the catastrophic condition of the land and buildings move the locals to provide advice and help; they know the Allbrights have a slim to none chance of surviving the fast approaching winter. In time and with guidance from new friends, Cora and Leni take to the subsidence lifestyle like a duck to water. Ernt, on the other hand resents the interference and his anger feeds his paranoia and violent nature. As Ernt reaches a new boiling point he discovers that Bo Harlan’s father and brothers are survivalists preparing for a nuclear rapture. Earl and Ernt form a dark friendship that threatens the lives of everyone on the island.

Back at the homestead, Cora finds that living in a one room shack won’t allow her to hide Ernt’s beatings. The truth of her parent’s marriage is exposed and promises only to get worse as the perpetual dark of winter drives Ernt to new heights of meanness. And it does.

Leni looked at her mother’s beaten, bruised face, the rag turning red with her blood.
You’re saying it’s your fault?
You’re too young to understand. He didn’t mean to do that. He just – loves me to much sometimes.
He MEANT it.

The island folks have a “come to Jesus” moment with Ernt that sets off a slow-motion fire storm. The years pass. Leni falls in love with a rich neighbor’s son and fumbles through adolescence in a one-room school house. Cora finds life at the extremes suits her. Ernt, away at the oil fields sends home money and returns for brief periods each year; always ready to disrupt island life. Cora and Leni face the truth that someday they are going to have to make life altering decisions. . .But not yet says, Cora. I love him.

Related imageThe months he is away, life on the island seems like the nirvana he envisioned to Cora and Leni and the locals. These years are the happiest of times in the book. Right up until the day Ernt gets fired from the oil fields and arrives home to discover his rich unmarried neighbor sitting at his kitchen table playing cards with the girls.  As he implodes, all the is good inside Ernt is sucked into a black hole and all the evil releases his Kraken.

I’ll leave what happens to your imagination. I want to make sure that all readers take time to enjoy the beauty, expansiveness and surreal extreme of Alaska. Lay back on the ground and watch the sky in multicolor. Hannah, having lived in Alaska, knows how to describe it to perfection.

I was a little disappointed that most of the characters were not fully developed; the exception being Leni. I fell in love with Large Marge and her oversized personality and big heart.

So many themes, alcoholism, untreated PTSD, domestic abuse, abortion, subsistence living, Alaska, sense of community and more. Any book club should enjoy picking the book apart!

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

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THE IMMORTALISTS

THE IMMORTALISTS
Chloe Benjamin

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 2018
346 pages
FICTION : Family | Fortune Tellers
ARC: G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

It’s a sticky summer day in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1969. Eleven-year-old Daniel Gold overhears a conversation about a mysterious fortune-teller while standing in line at Shmulke Bernstein’s restaurant. He excitedly races home to share the news with his three siblings: 13-year-old Varya, 9-year-old Klara, and 7-year-old Simon.

EXCERPT From Prologue . . .

What exactly does this woman do?
I told you. She has powers.
Like what?
What I heard is she can tell fortunes. What’ll happen in your life – whether you’ll have a good one or a bad one. And there’s something else. She can say when you’ll die.
That’s ridiculous. Nobody can say that.
And what if they could?
Then I wouldn’t want to know.
Why not?
Because. What if it is bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?
Then it’d be better to know so you could get everything done before.

It’s unbearably hot in their apartment. Their high-strung Jewish mother is driving them crazy. The four children, desperate for diversion, set out to discover the location of this intriguing rishika. Each child is torn with fear but driven by curiosity, challenge, and excitement to find the fortune teller’s apartment and to learn what she has to say about their future.

They are surprised when the rishika brusquely takes them one-by-one into her apartment; diluting their individual courage. By the time the door opens and, Varya, the eldest enters the room, she is filled with panic and guilt. As the oldest, she feels responsible and guilty about endangering her younger siblings. She becomes terrified to discover that she is alone in the room with the strange woman.

Where are my siblings?
[Outside waiting for you.]

She snaps her fingers and gestures to Varya’s left hand
“We got work to do.”

“Your palm.”
Varya scoots to the edge of her chair and offers her hand to the rishika.
Can you really do it? Do you know when I’ll die?

Before Varya hears that fateful date, the rishika studies her hand in great detail, then abruptly says: January 21st, 2044. (We do not immediately learn the fateful dates for Klara, Daniel and Simon.) The rishika tells her, as she has told the others, not to discuss her revelations.

It is obvious, as the children head home, that each has received disturbing news. A lighthearted childhood adventure used as a diversion to abject summer boredom severs their carefree childhoods. The news each received that day will hang like a pall over their future life decisions. The prologue ends as the Gold family sits around the dinner table that fateful night. The children’s sullen behavior a sign that they have learned of life’s impermanence.

Thus launches this complicated family story told over 50 years in four vignettes. One by one, beginning with Simon, we discover each child has a deep ingrained secret that gets amplified by the gypsy’s prophesy. Their lives are much like our own cycling up and down as we make our way in an imperfect world.  The lesson each of these children learns is that if you worry about death, you will miss out on living: in the end we all die and there’s not a thing that can be done about it. You might as well do what you can to make the best of the life you are given regardless of whether it is long or short.

BLOGGER’S THOUGHTS

I always feel weird when my opinion of a book varies greatly from the majority of reviewers. I liked the book and give it a solid 3 star rating but I found several areas needing a little more meat and depth. The book captured my attention right at the beginning with the promise of magic and fantasy but petered out through the middle delving into hedonism and decisions leading to dark self-fulfilling prophecies. The final quarter of the book rises to a richer and satisfying conclusion and gives hope that change is possible.

[Varya asks the rishika]… what if I change? It seems impossible that Varya’s future is already inside her life like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.

Then you’d be special, “Cause most people don’t.

The author has done her homework with background and historical references. I found the discussion of magical history and techniques fascinating.  The deeply emotional coverage of the emergence of AIDS in our country in the 1980s brought back sad memories of people in my past.  I am reminded of a friend near the end of his life leaving me with these words – Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die.

Recommended for book club discussion.

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