3 out of 4 stars
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RVN by Tim Gingras is a short, but highly impactful coming-of-age war novel. Unlike a dry historical account about the Vietnam War, this book gives the readers a chance to understand what the war experience meant for all those who found themselves caught in a fight which was not their own and they were definitely not prepared for. A tribute to the past and a warning against the atrocities of war, Tim Gingras’ novel is dedicated to the 58,202 US soldiers who were KIA (killed in action)/MIA (missing in action) because of the “in-country” Vietnam war service, the 17,725 Vietnam War drafted KIA/MIA and the nearly 10,000,000 who served during the Vietnam War era. To the author’s credit, he will donate a part of the royalties from every book sold to accredited veterans’ organizations.
Based on the author’s 4-year experience as a U.S. Navy corpsman during the 1970s, the story follows the protagonist’s life-changing journey from Chicago, USA, to RVN (the Republic of Vietnam), the official name of South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975. 70-year-old Charles ‘Charlie’ Kinane, a veteran of war, accepts to give an interview about his military service and Vietnam. It is for the first time that he finds the strength to discuss what happened from the time he turned 18, on Jan. 3, 1966 to June 1968, when he got his Honorable Discharge from the Army. In a relatively brief period, Charlie’s life is turned upside down. He does not only end up on the front, but he is also being charged with 11 counts of murder and scheduled for a court-martial trial. Is he truly a hero or does the war turn him into a cold-blooded murderer?
The first-person account of the facts is the best narrative technique Tim Gingras could have chosen to reflect the traumatic consequences of the war experience. Charlie’s sincerity is at times shattering: “Certain things stay on your mind twenty-four/seven, and my RVN experiences, good and bad, are embedded in my mind. This memory is there in my dreams, when I wake up, during showers, throughout my day, and when I close my eyes and fall asleep at night, now that I can sleep again. I have never told anyone this entire story.” What I enjoyed most about this novel is the air of realism and authenticity surrounding Charlie’s story. The plot develops at a steady pace from the moment Charlie gets drafted and throughout his training period in Orlando, Florida, San Diego, California and Portsmouth, Virginia. Everything changes when he is deployed for one year with USMC 3rd Infantry Division to Da Nang, Vietnam. From that moment onwards, all of his actions are part of his round-the-clock struggle for survival.
The author does a good job in contrasting Charlie’s naivety and trustworthiness with the horrors he witnesses on the front. There is a such a moving discrepancy between the young 18-year-old boy who thinks Vietnam is near Hawaii and has never been on a plane before and the same boy who gets assigned to accompany platoons in search-and-rescue missions in the Vietnamese jungle. Apart from Charlie, a few other characters stand out from the crowd such as J.H. Pitt, the commanding officer on the base and chief surgeon, Lt. Cranfit, the head nurse, Sergeant Haug or interpreter Kim. Unfortunately, they are too schematically described to become genuinely interesting.
Although I highly appreciate the documentary value of this book, I am rating it 3 out of 4 stars simply because the author is not first and foremost a storyteller. For historical purposes, tracking down each and every step of Charlie’s journey is important, but, in terms of literary achievement and keeping suspense, the story could grow tiresome. The language used is simple and somehow consistent with the protagonist’s age and level of understanding. If you expect any twists and turns of the phrase, amazing descriptions or revelatory dialogues, this is not exactly the case. Even if Charlie himself is wounded and witnesses violent deaths, there are no explicitly gore scenes that could make you sick to your stomach. However, I wouldn’t recommend the novel to a younger audience despite Charlie’s age. There are only five minor editing issues which did not spoil the pleasure of reading in any way. I would certainly recommend the book to those interested in reading historical fiction imbued with realism and serving a recuperatory function.
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