Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Man from Saigon by Marti Leimbach

I read this for the War Through the Generations blog challenge. Having studiously avoided most Vietnam War literature, I thought I could try one book written by a woman, about a woman. Okay, I tried it. It was good but it sure didn’t make me want to read more about that awful war.

The Man from Saigon is a novel about Susan Gifford, a reporter sent to Vietnam in the mid-1960’s by a women’s magazine to cover the “female angle” of the war. At first Susan spends her time following the nurses around the hospital but she quickly gets drawn into the larger aspects of the conflict and soon she’s going on patrols with the infantry, riding around in helicopters, and eventually being captured by a rogue band of Vietnamese soldiers. And who is the man from Saigon? He’s called Son, an enigmatic Vietnamese man who works as Susan’s photographer, translator, and guide, who is captured along with her, and who may or may not be working for the North Vietnamese. Susan and Son endure a harrowing march through the jungle before they are eventually rescued. The story is told in a combination of bloody realism and dreamlike flashbacks. Leimbach is a good writer and if you like this kind of thing, it’s an excellent book, complete with a gripping plot, interesting characters and lots of suspense. It just wasn’t for me.

I kept asking myself “why can I read so many books about World War II and can barely cope with the stress of this one Vietnam book?” I realized that much of what I read about World War II falls into the category of “home front” or “civilian” literature: stories (fiction and nonfiction) about regular people (not soldiers) whose lives were disrupted by the war, books about the resistance, books about the persecuted. Are there “home front” Vietnam books? The few that I’ve read keep the war at such arm’s length that they are almost not about the war at all but rather about the people who are decidedly NOT in the war. I’m thinking of In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason as one example. I have yet to find the Vietnam equivalent of a book like The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. Maybe it would have to be written in Vietnamese.

(Book 24, 2010)


Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting observation about WW2 vs Vietnam lit. Could it also be that one was a just war (if such a thing is possible) and the other was so problematic? I do love Sarah Waters's writing, as you know. The Man from Saigon makes me think of the excellent but disturbing movie The Killing Fields, although a different country. I've heard good things about this novel but wasn't sure I could stomach it. If you love WW2 homefront, did you watch the PBS Foyle's War Series? It's as good as the best books.

Amused said...

I am so glad you liked this book. I have it on my shelf and am intimidated by the subject, not sure if I am ready right now to pick up something super heavy. Glad to know that when I am, it will be good.

LINDA from Each Little World said...

I have studiously avoided Vietnam books and movies, but I thought I might try to read some for this event when I first saw it in your links. Got a couple of books from the library but could not do it. Part of it is having lived through the war era and having so much of it burned in my brain as it was revealed on the nightly news and in the papers.

I did read two books about women in the Vietnam war that were excellent: "Home Before Morning" by Lynda Van Devanter and "A Piece of my Heart: The Stories of 26 American Women Who Served in Vietnam" by Keith Walker. Both books were reviewed in an article by Doug Bradley ( a Madison vet) in the State Journal in 1987, and I read them at that time.

Frankly, those books depressed me even further to realize how badly women were treated by US soldiers and top brass, and how little attention (medical or other) they got when they came home. Van Devanter died at age 55 in 2002 of Agent Orange-related illness, having spent her life working for women vets. The morning I open the NYTimes and saw her obit, I started to cry. Her story made such an indelible impression on me, I felt a visceral loss. That was pretty much the end of my Vietnam reading.

Lisa said...

This sounds very much like The Lotus Eaters. Sorry to hear it didn't work for you. The home front during the Vietnam War was decidedly different from what it was in WWII.

Birdy said...

Loved your reviews, so well written :) Adding you to my blogroll :)

Anna said...

I've noticed a difference between war books about WWII and Vietnam. It's hard to describe why the Vietnam books are so much harder to read. Well, the Holocaust books are disturbing, but the WWII books focusing on the soldiers just don't have the grittiness of the books written about soldiers during Vietnam.

We've posted your review here on War Through the Generations.

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