A couple of years ago I read and reviewed for Publishers Weekly John Shors' second book, Beside a Burning Sea. In my review I noted the beautiful prose, lyrical even when describing the horrors of war. His third release, Dragon House, presents more of a "I liked it, but..." quandary. Shors' writing remains captivating, but it's too earnest and sentimental. I wept as much while reading it as I do watching Terms of Endearment, but the book's heart-on-a-sleeve nature, which was likely behind the Kirkus reviewer's critique that "nonfiction might have better served the author's purpose," never fully faded into the background of the narrative. And, though I loved the young Vietnamese woman who is one of the story's lead characters, to be truthful she's one hell of a Mary Sue. Even with all these negatives, that the book had such an emotional impact on me cannot be denied. Add on top of that the questions it raised that I'd never considered, and my final grade is a B-, a recommendation, but one that comes with qualifications.
Iris Rhodes promised her father on his deathbed that she would continue his work in Vietnam and open a center for street children. Though his PTSD kept him in and out of her life for too long, she loved him and wanted to fulfill his dream. Along for the ride is Noah Woods, an embittered Iraq War vet who lost part of his leg - and his best friend - while serving overseas. He drinks to keep the pain at bay, and rages internally over the lies that led him to enlist. I happen to agree politically with that viewpoint and know there are many veterans who feel similarly, but I could never separate Noah's beliefs from those held by Shors. Perhaps it's because I read the book soon after attempting to read Lone Survivor, the memoir of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who tells of his harrowing experience in Afghanistan and being the only one of four SEALs to survive a mission. The first few pages of Luttrell's book are intensely emotional, but I stopped reading shortly thereafter as a result of his ultra right-wing views.
Thien is the young woman Iris' father hired to help create and run The Iris Rhodes Center for Street Children. Lovely, kind, full of lyrical stories about Vietnam and its dragon mythology, it's easy to see how she and Iris grew so close in such a short time, and that she and Noah were drawn to each other, he to the beauty she brought to every day life and her to the goodness she knew was locked inside him. As much as I loved Thien myself, even I found her to be the embodiment of a Mary Sue character. She reminds me of the idealized African-American women found in some of the Southern Fiction I love...a born nurturer, wise beyond her years, soothing, and always with a story or song to brighten a dark day.
Other characters are woven into the story as the three work to finish the Center: a devoted grandmother trying to care for her young granddaughter who is dying of leukemia; a pair of street children who sell fans and play games with tourists to earn protection money for a loathsome, drug-addicted monster who keeps them starving and in fear of their lives; and a suspicious policeman whose hatred of Americans is slowly overcome by the good he sees in Iris and Noah. Shors' ability to describe the sights, sounds, and smells - and the rampant corruption - in Vietnam are among the highlights, another is that he raises points I doubt many of us have considered.
Those of us who came of age in the 60s or 70s know about the Napalm used to destroy foliage and the effects of Agent Orange on veterans - who, after all, can forget the deadly irony of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who ordered the use of the defoliant that eventually claimed the life of his son, a patrol boat commander in Vietnam? But what of the Vietnamese burned and mutilated as a result? I don't know about you, but the image of Vietnam that sticks in my mind as a 13-year-old is of the fall of Saigon, when the helicopters evacuated remaining American citizens and desperate Vietnamese tried to board. Or my head jumps into the killing fields of Cambodia. I thank the author for the book's teachable moments. Even though I grew up in a solidly anti-war household, my parents mostly railed about students being beat up by policemen at rallies, the inequities of the draft, or, after Carter took office, spoke admiringly of the unconditional amnesty he granted to those who fled to Canada to avoid it.
A small niggle about Iris, who apparently earned a living reviewing books sent to her by publishers. This is a gig I'd love but I'm not sure it exists. As a free-lance reviewer for PW, I earn a small fee for each book I review. Readers who often review books for publishers or reviewers for large websites - AAR for instance - receive their books for free, but cash does not exchange hands. Even reviewers with bylines who write for magazines or newspapers tend to review for other venues or in other media to sustain themselves. A small niggle, but a niggle nonetheless.
While I think it's fair to criticize Shors for too blatantly telegraphing his views through Noah's character, the numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq with physical or emotional injuries is astoundingly, disgustingly high, and by fictionalizing it the author is able to personalize what has become a very impersonal event for most of us. It's not like World War II, when the U.S. was consumed by the war; these days you can pick up a paper, view headlines online, or watch the news on a broadcast or cable channel without the war being discussed at all, let alone front and center. Then too, the author clearly did his research on what it feels like to have lost a limb. The phantom pain of Noah's missing limb and the constant discomfort he experiences while wearing his prosthesis make very real the results of war on those who are sent to fight, heavy-handedness and all, as does the PTSD suffered by Iris' father and its effects on her and her mother.
For every aspect of Dragon House that I enjoyed, there was a negative counterweight, but in the end the book earns a qualified recommendation. That said, my view is definitely colored by politics, and I guess Bushies will be so frustrated by the "bleeding heart" liberalism infusing the story to enjoy it at all.