This gritty tale told through Haiku-like poetry takes place in 1968 — the year that saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and many other legacies of fear and violence.
In "Death Coming Up the Hill," 17-year-old Ashe learns more about Vietnam as his parents’ marriage is set against the tense, turbulent background of the times. His mother is a peace-loving activist who protests the war that his overbearing, bigoted father supports.
The conflict in Ashe's family has similar ironies as the one in Vietnam. The couple become ensnared in their own personal, senseless battle that seems to have no winners. Suffering, confusion and difficult lessons engulf Ashe as the war and his rapidly changing world take center stage.
Written by Chris Crowe, an English professor at Brigham Young University, "Death Coming Up the Hill" deals with the issues that an everyday family would face during that time. The late '60s setting is well realized. Descriptions of the climate, food and landscape are vivid and on target.
The end of the book offers historical and author's notes in which Crowe describes the creative process used in the formation of the story and how he came to include one syllable for each of the 16,592 American soldiers who died in Vietnam that year. Within the intense, emotion-filled events, the author's electrically efficient use of language keeps the heavy subject matter from being overwhelming.
One minor flaw in the text arises from the fact that in the late 1960s, the possibility of being drafted to fight in Vietnam terrified many high school boys and their loved ones, and this reality was missing from the story. The idea of a son making a horrific sacrifice would have paralleled the complexity and multiple gray areas in the battle between good and evil that was Vietnam.
"Death Coming Up the Hill" contains strong language and depictions of violence, but all is presented in a useful context that benefits the narrative. There are no blood-and-guts descriptions and no sexual references.
Crowe's book speaks as a powerful work of historical fiction.
Michael Strickland's website is at michaelrstrickland.com.