“I’m ten years burning down the road. Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go” Bruce Springsteen
“ At her graduation, the commencement speaker, a Methodist minister, had preached about keeping the country strong, stressing sacrifice. He made Sam nervous. She started thinking about war, and it stayed on her mind all summer.” Thus begins “In Country“, Bobbie Ann Mason‘s haunting book about the fallout of the Vietnam War, as seen through the eyes of 17 year old Samantha Hughes.
Living alone with her “crazy uncle Emmett”, a Vietnam vet, who let’s her “run wild”, Sam is a captivating protagonist, as she sizes up her life and also tries to help Emmett, who she is sure is suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. In Mason’s book, in this small southern town, the vets are appreciated, and treated respectfully— and yet, there’s a terrible sense of human psychic loss in the lives of the vets we meet.
Mason’s work is deceptively straight forward and minimalistic, but filled with hidden images, like the passage at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, where Emmett seems to confront his demons. Emmett is “sitting cross-legged in front of the wall, and slowly his face bursts into a smile like flames.” Lisa Hinrichsen’s interpretation in our literature databases:“Coded within this moment of apparent enlightenment is an image of violence suggestive of the horrific political and historical realities of U.S. Involvement in western imperialism, namely the widely-circulated photographs of the self-immolation by Buddhist monks on the streets of Saigon.”
That’s Mason- always putting in a little more than the obvious. This book is about love and sacrifice, of many varieties; and also of responsibility, both personal and societal. It’s ironic that the novel’s 25th anniversary is also the year when the Veteran’s Administration has finally announced new policies for veterans with claims against Agent Orange after decades of “delay and deny”.