Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: Death Coming up the Hill by Chris Crowe

At first glance, it seems like such a gimmick. A novel, composed entirely of haikus, exactly 17 syllables each. The text totaling 16,592 syllables in all, the number of American soldiers who died in 1968 due to the Vietnam War. Each chapter, a new week, boldly announcing the number of deaths reported in the past seven days.

But the strict scaffolding allows powerful images and simplicity to take center stage. Every extraneous detail is omitted and the story is stripped down to the barest essentials and the barest emotion.

Ashe is a seventeen-year-old high school student. His parents are complete opposites in every way - she's a anti-war peace activist, he's a conservative dogmatist - who got married when she became pregnant and only stay together out of their love for Ashe.  Ashe befriends a new girl in his history class, "gorgeous without trying" Angela. Angela's brother Kelly is in Vietnam but her "white peace signs and doves cover[ing] her tie-dyed tee shirt" reveal her as a hippie who "oppose[s] the war but support[s] [her brother] as much as [she] possibly could." Ashe sees in Angela's family the love he so desperately wishes existed in his own.

Finally, Ashe's parents' relationship hits the breaking point and Ashe has to make some hard decisions, brave decisions, even heroic decisions.

The constant tension at Ashe's home is mirrored by the tensions in society at large. 1968 is a tumultuous year not only for the deaths and protests related to the war, but also the racism and riots and the upending of so many status quos. "The world had gone nuts," Ashe observes.

It's a short book, and the haiku format makes it even shorter, so you can easily finish it in a single sitting, but I'd encourage you to read it at least twice to catch some clever foreshadowing and thematic repetition, as well as for the opportunity to read it more slowly, maybe even aloud.

In the historical note at the end, Crowe mentions that the title, and the final two haunting stanzas of the book, are based on an excerpt from a letter included in a Life magazine article published June 27, 1969. (The link is in the note as well, though unfortunately, there's a small typo in the edition I read. However, it's pretty easy to figure out that "amercan" is supposed to be "american" with an 'i'.) The Google Books link here takes you directly to the article, full of the minute details that make individual names and photographs of those who died morph into real people. Sobering.

Death Coming up the Hill
by Chris Crowe
ISBN: 9780544302150
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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