Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

With Banned Books Week coming at the end of September, I have been discussing challenged books with teens. I was thinking about one of my favorite books, Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers that happens to be on the list. I will not go into the reasons some people have requested that this book removed from libraries or schools. Suffice it to say that it is about young soldiers in war and that war is not pretty.

When I was in library school, I wrote about this book because it touched me emotionally. I am reprinting what I wrote here because I know that it is better than anything I could write now about this powerful book. Here is what I wrote then and still believe now:

My Uncle Bobby died in Vietnam. He was killed in action on August 19, 1969. For his actions he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Bobby Joe Likens served in Vietnam for 16 days.

“The real question was what I was doing, what any of us were doing, in Nam.”

Fallen Angels is the story of young army soldiers in Vietnam in 1967-1968 as seen through the eyes of Richard Perry from Harlem. There is no real plot and no climatic battle. This is a story of young Americans thrown into a hellish situation in a foreign land. Who will live and who will die? The soldiers are not perfect. They question their leaders. They fight with each other. They use fowl language and racial slurs. They make mistakes. They just want to get back to ‘the World.’ They want to see their homes again. Perry wants to go back to Harlem and see his mother and brother Kenny even though he knows he will not be the same when he returns.

“I didn’t want to say that I had a feeling that I wouldn’t get back home.”

I felt Bobby on every page. Did he live the lives of these soldiers? Did he have days of boredom while waiting for orders? Did he tease and curse and embrace the men who served with him? Did Bobby pray to himself? Was he scared? Did he see one of his buddies die? Was he afraid to write home to tell his family what was really happening around him and to him? Did he question those who lead him into battle? Did he kill anyone? Did he feel the shrapnel? Did he know it was coming? Did he wonder why he was there?

“The neat pile of body bags was waiting for the rest of us.”

I was born in 1970, so I never knew Bobby. His brief time in Vietnam is a mystery to me. As a child, Vietnam was just the place where my uncle died. After reading this book my question has gone from “What did he do there?” to “Did he do this or that?” Ultimately, I am left with more questions than answers, but I feel this book has given me some insight into Bobby’s life.

At the end, Perry finds out that a nurse he had met has been killed. He says nobody back home “would know about her, how this part of her life had been, what she had seen, or how she had felt at the end. They would get a telegram, and a body, but they wouldn’t know.” So true.

Click here for more info about this book from the Westfield Washington Public Library.

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