Death Coming Up the HIll, Chris Crowe

Monday, April 16, 2018

As a child of baby boomers, I heard a lot about the 60s, the Viet Nam War, and the civil rights movement when I was growing up. My father served in the Navy during the last years of Viet Nam, and was never stationed in Southeast Asia, but so many men of his generation were horribly traumatized by that conflict. And unlike World War II, which most Americans seem to regard as a just war, the advent of television and the anti-war movement created a very different cultural moment when it came to Viet Nam. The domestic upheaval of the 60s essentially redefined what it means to be an American in some pretty profound ways.

Chris Crowe's book, Death Coming Up the Hill, is a short novel, told in a series of interconnected haiku, does an admirable job of fitting in a little something about almost all of the major events of 1968 and 1969. The title, and the last chapter, are based on a letter sent home by a US Marine shortly before being killed during the battle on Hamburger Hill. The main character, Ashe, is a senior in high school. Every week, his history teacher writes a number on the board-it is the number of US soldiers killed in Vietnam the previous week. Numbers are very important to Ashe, especially the number 17, which is why he writes his "journal" in the form of haiku (Japanese poems that consist of three lines totaling 17 syllables). Ashe's mother and father married because of him. His father, a former college football star, gave up a career in the pros to marry Ashe's mother. His mother, for her part, was never 100% comfortable in the housewife role she'd been relegated to. When she becomes interested in the anti-war movement, things get really tense at home. Luckily, a beautiful new girl, Angela, enrolls at Ashe's school. They quickly become involved, and Ashe learns that Angela's brother is missing in action in Viet Nam. As the war grinds on, and things at home deteriorate, Ashe is forced to make a decision that may force him to pay the ultimate price.

Novels in verse are having a moment right now, so the fact that this novel is told through poetry is not singularly unique. What is, however, is the very intentional way that the author (through the character of Ashe) honors the memory of every US soldier killed in the Viet Nam war. Each syllable of each haiku represents one soldier lost, and the number of haiku times the syllables in each (17, of course) equals 16, 592; the total number of the fallen. Frankly, this is one of those feats that always amaze me. It's hard enough to tell a compelling story with all of the words in the world available to you, but to limit yourself to 196 poems of three lines and seventeen syllables each to tell a story as moving and comprehensive as this one is pretty impressive.

You'd think that a novel as short as Death Coming Up the Hill would feel overworked by the inclusion of so many historical references, but Crowe finds a way to weave the history of the late 60s into the story in ways that make sense and don't feel contrived. The school year he chronicles (1968-1969) was chock full of events with historical significance. Because I was thinking about using this in a US History class as a supplemental text, I made a list of the historical tie-ins that could be explored; the Viet Nam War, the civil rights movement, the assassination of MLK, the assassination of RFK, anti-miscegenation laws, the Democratic Convention riots, the hippie/peacenik movement, and the Cold War. Some of these topics are mentioned in passing in the context of some event that happens in the novel, and some become larger themes, but all are woven into the story in ways that feel true.

The character I probably related to the most on a personal level was Ashe's mother. My own mother was a housewife for most of my childhood, and that role never sat well on her. She is one of the smartest women I know, someone who needs a lot of intellectual stimulation, and being home taking care of the house and watching me and my brother was not really meeting that need. Luckily, she was able to go to college when I was in high school, and while she only briefly worked outside the home due to some physical challenges, college gave her an outlet for her own intellect and allowed her to meet likeminded folks who had more in common with her than many of the other moms on our block. So I saw a lot of my mother in the character of Ashe's mother, but I also saw a little bit of myself. I can totally envision myself doing exactly what Ashe's mother does when she realizes the power that she can have by freeing herself from the chains of expectation regarding what is "proper" for a wife and mother to do.

Of course, I'm old now, so it makes sense I would see more of myself in the adult characters, but Ashe and Angela are both well written and relatable. Ashe is a little more mature than I expect most 17-year-olds to be, but he had to grow up fast to survive the conflict in his home. I think teenagers will see in him the same uncertainty and fear they themselves feel as they grow towards adulthood, grappling with decisions about what exactly they will do after high school and learning to navigate adult relationships. While ultimately we decided not to use this book in US History, I still think it would make a good addition to a social studies class at the high school level.

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