I have been moved, often to tears, with the power of literature to heal, to reach the dark places where we hide pain or shame. I’ve seen literature bring to light the previously unmentionable. I had no idea of this power until I went on tour to talk about my novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn.
I’d like to share some stories about how this particular novel has moved veterans and peace protesters alike—and how people who normally wouldn’t be talking to each other have come together at book readings and panel discussions and left with a greater understanding of their own and the other side’s views on the most divisive war in U.S. history since the Civil War.
Many veterans have told me how good it felt to finally have their story told, a story they themselves have often been unable to tell. At the end of a reading, a man about my age came up to the signing table with five copies of Matterhorn. “Wow,” I said, “five copies. That’ll go a long way toward the kitchen remodel. How come so many?”
“I’m a Vietnam veteran and operated in the same area where Matterhorn takes place,” he said. “I’ve been trying for the last forty years to tell my wife and four kids what it was like. Every time I try, I’d choke up and have to leave the room. I just could never get it out.” He paused. “I’m going to give them each a copy and let the book do my talking for me.”
I have corresponded and talked with veterans’ family members, all of whom have used the novel as a way to understand the experience of fighting in Vietnam. Siblings of veterans who have committed suicide have written to tell me that they never understood their brothers’ pain until reading my novel. I got an email from a woman who, at Christmas dinner, this year, watched her father and her uncle talk about the war for the very first time because of the book. Another woman started sobbing at a reading, telling me that she’d sent the novel to her father, who was an impassioned war protester and his brother, her uncle, who was a Marine in Vietnam. They’d had a third brother, also a Marine, who was killed in the war. They hadn’t spoken to each other in forty years, each blaming the other, in some way, for that painful death. Upon reading the book, her father called his brother on the telephone. Both apologized to each other, and they were still talking at the time of the reading.
The Vietnam War has been much like having an alcoholic father in the family. We can talk about anything, but not Dad’s drinking. Matterhorn has sparked genuine dialog between people who found themselves on opposite sides of this huge political, cultural and class chasm. It has also forced me to engage in this dialog myself, and it hasn’t always been fun.
People have stood up in readings and apologized for blaming the troops for the war and treating them so badly upon their return home. They had dehumanized the returning veterans, and reading the novel had rehumanized them. On the other hand, I have learned, through several honest exchanges with former protesters, that the majority of war protesters did not treat our kids so shamefully, even though a non-trivial number of them did.
An example of how emotionally charged this issue took shape in the reactions I saw to what I thought were minor comments of minor characters in the novel. I’ve been taken to task for Matterhorn presenting all war protesters as spoiled, privileged kids looking out for their own hides. I don’t know whether to be flattered or dismayed because readers get so caught up in the story that they take what comes out of my characters’ mouths for my actual viewpoint on the war and war protesters. My characters did indeed feel that way. Most of them were from a social class that would have. I myself, however, think the war was a huge policy error and the peace movement had legitimate aims and honest people in it.
When I said I thought it was a policy error at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, a Vietnamese woman stood up, her voice shaking with emotion, and told how her family had suffered horribly fleeing Vietnam on boats. She asked me how I could so blithely say the war was “a policy error.” The people in the south and the American government were right to fight against the forced imposition of a brutal police state. Then, pointing a shaking finger at me, as if I was the personification of American foreign policy, she accused America, and me, of shamefully abandoning its rightful cause and leaving its friends and allies to a horrible fate. She stopped. The whole auditorium was silent. I quietly told her that she was right. We did that. However, if we hadn’t made the policy error in the first place, we wouldn’t have abandoned either her people or the cause.
Afterward, she came up to me as our group of authors were being escorted to the book signing table and started to apologize for having disrupted the discussion. I was so moved by her obvious pain, and obvious goodwill, I hugged her. I felt her choking back her tears. She had reminded all of us, especially me, that as damaging as that war was to us, our suffering pales immensely when compared to the suffering of those we abandoned.
All this, and more than I have space to tell, because people read a book and come to hear the author speak at a book store. I repeat. A book store. Without the early and consistent support of independent book stores, Matterhorn would never have reached so many people. By hand-selling Matterhorn, and by providing the forums for discussing it in public, the independent book stores have been as much a part of healing the wound of Vietnam as the readers and the writer.