Title: The Road Home
Author: Ellen Emerson White
Genre: Young Adult, Fiction, Historical
Publication Date: 1995
Paperback: 469 pages
Stand alone or series: Can be read as stand alone but is the 5th book in a series about the Vietnam War (read the Additional Thoughts for more information)
How did we get this book: Bought
Why did we read this book: A month back, we had the lovely Angie of Angieville over here for a Guest Dare – and wouldn’t you know it, she Dared us right back! The Road Home is one of Angie’s all time favorite novels from one of her favorite authors, so naturally, we were very excited to give The Road Home a read. It took us a shameful amount of time to actually read the book (we’re blushing right now), but better late than never, right?
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
Rebecca, a young nurse stationed in Vietnam during the war, must come to grips with her wartime experiences once she returns home to the United States.
Ana: When Angie dared us to read this book, I admit that I trembled inside. The idea behind the “Dares” is to make people read outside their comfort zones – little did she know that this book fit the idea to a “t” . I HATE war stories. Hate reading them with the force of a thousand hurricanes because every time I read a war story, every time I watch a war movie, I am reminded of the worst, the most stupid thing civilization ever created. Bearing that in mind, it is rather shocking that I LOVED The Road Home. It is a dark, gritty, almost unbearably sad book; it is also a beautiful character-driven book, with a wonderful protagonist and a heart-warming love story.
Thea: I have to agree with Ana – I was a little nervous going into this read. This isn’t the type of book that I’d normally pick up of my own volition (though I have read and loved war novels before – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien especially comes to mind). In many ways, The Road Home reminds me of my middle/high school required reading – I’d begin the assignments with low expectations, but once I got into the rhythm, I inevitably ended up really enjoying these novels. Regardless of my fears and prejudices going into The Road Home, I knew Angie loved it – and her taste has rarely steered me wrong before! And, of course, I ended up loving The Road Home. It’s a beautiful insight to the Vietnam War and its aftermath through the eyes of a brilliant, layered protagonist.
On the Plot:
Rebecca Philips is close to the end of her Vietnam tour – as a lieutenant nurse she has witnessed the worst of the war: deaths, injuries, the very waste of life. She has done unspeakable things, seen friends die, suffered wounds and is on the brink of collapsing of exhaustion. Only painkillers, beer and Michael’s – the soldier whom she recently met – letters keep her going. Surely when she goes home, things will get better, won’t they?
Ana: The plot of The Road Home is quite straight forward and very, very simple – it is about this nurse Rebecca who is suffering of PTSD which starts during the war itself. It opens:
On Christmas morning, Rebecca lost her moral virginity, her sense of humour – and her two best friends. But, other than that, it was a hell of a holiday.
Rebecca’s struggle to cope with the horrors of war, with what happened to her and her friends and ultimately with The World is what moves the novel making it an essentially character-driven novel. In other words: nothing really HAPPENS in the way of plot.
Divided in two sections, The War and The World, the book is an insight into the life of this one person who went to Vietnam and lived to tell the tale. The first part concentrates in Rebecca’s day to day life at the hospital and it is absolutely, tremendously sad and gritty. It shows the horrible decisions doctors and nurses have to make in a hurry as injured soldier after injured soldier is brought in. It shows the stress and the tiredness of impossibly long shifts under extreme circumstances; the horrible food they have to eat which they invariably ingest with either cold, strong coffee or beer. The amount of alcohol and drugs ingested in an attempt to stay awake/sleep/deal is unbelievable and on top of everything all of the doctors, nurses, soldiers are dealing with some level or another of alcoholism or substance abuse. It is horrible and it made me extremely depressed to read about it – especially when kids were brought in, dying.
In the second part, when Rebecca is released to the World, when you would expect things would be a bit better? It almost broke my heart to see that actually no, getting back to the world, is nowhere near the end of all problems. The PTSD, the injuries, the nightmares, the dependence on alcohol, all is there and no one can really understand. To make things even worse, it is disheartening to see the anti-war sentiments and protests against the SOLDIERS when they come back.
These people have lost friends, have lost limbs, almost lost their mind and they still have to face this when they come back? It is ugly and it is again, unbearably sad because the soldiers, the nurses, etc do what they are told to – it’s the politics and the politicians behind the war that should be the one target. Having said that, the book is not an anti-war plantlet and it never falls into dreaded preachy territory. The story SHOWS , the reader reacts. And this is really, what it is down me, as a reader, reading, experiencing this book: I can’t remember the last time when I read something I did not pay attention to POV, writing, the mechanics of a book. I only felt.
The whole book is absolutely brutal and yet, still hopeful. I wouldn’t have loved if darkness and sadness was all there was to it. The love story between Rebecca and Michael, the small moments of lightness where we could see the shadow of a light hearted Rebecca who loved to sing and tell jokes, the friendships that were possible in the middle of it, it all contributed to making this a fabulous read to me. It helps that I love character-driven books, of course.
I had a most guttural, emotional reaction to this book. I had to read it really slowly, often stopping so that I could examine my reactions and to think about what I was reading. When the ending came, and it was a happy ending, I cried. I will paraphrase Angie here: Michael and Rebecca deserve every scrap of happiness they can get and I am glad I was able to witness that.
Thea: As Ana says, the plot is pretty straightforward. A girl goes to war as a nurse, and she returns home to deal with the trauma of her experiences. As far as reading goes, I finished this book in a day without any problems. It’s a quick read, though it does tackle some heavy issues – the usual horrors of war; the chaos and senselessness of it all; a touch on drug abuse and a passing glance at sexism and gender relations during war. This is pretty standard fare in the war literature canon, and while Ms. White does a solid job of portraying the cruelties of Vietnam, it’s nothing really new or particularly resonating (at times it did feel like The Short-Timers or Paco’s Story – the Lite version). What impressed me much more was the way Ms. White examines the other side of the anti-war sentiments of the 1960s and ’70s. Upon Rebecca’s return home, she is avoided and sneered at by her old friends and sneered at by random people (the scene on the airplane as she flies home to Massachusetts next to a businessman that treats her as though she has the plague because of her uniform). It’s a timely and important message – regardless of politics, regardless of how someone personally feels about a war, it’s not the fault of the young men and women who are dying in the fields or deserts. The anti-war sentiment bleeding into hate and animosity towards veterans is something that continues to happen today, and Ms. Emerson’s portrayal of this misdirected anger is incredibly thought-provoking and resonated with me far more than the familiar, less-inspired themes of the senselessness of war.
At the end of the day, I was moved by the story, and particularly by Rebecca as a character (but more on that later). There wasn’t much that physically happened in terms of plot which is a little disappointing, but as this is more of an introspective, quieter novel, it simply works. Though I do wish there was a larger scope for the story, for its contained nature, it is pretty damn good.
On the Characters:
Ana: Now, this is where this book really and truly, shines. I had a field day with Rebecca as a protagonist. She is complex and oh boy so freaking effed-up. When in Vietnam Rebecca moves about almost like an automaton performing tasks and trying not to think about the Christmas day when she lost friends, and nearly lost her own life. The happenings of that day are only alluded to until it becomes clear that there is something ELSE that happened there, when she was out in the jungle, alone for more than one day before being rescued. It is also pointed out by another character how much she changed after the incident: she used to be the person that lifted everybody’s spirits but she just lost the will to make jokes and to laugh. The memories, the survivor’s guilt are almost too much for Rebecca, nearly as much as the thought that she is down there out of her own accord, based on a stupid decision she made when her childhood sweetheart was killed in the war and her brother disappeared to Canada to avoid going.
For the duration of the book she just….keeps going and it is hard to say what it is exactly that fuels her: there is all sorts of guilt here and also hope. There is so much that is happening to her. There is her own family situation that needs to be addressed: her father who hates that she wanted to be a doctor, her brother who just ….went away. When she goes back to the real world who can possibly understand her? For the second part of the book, Rebecca does little more than to sleep and drink and it is heartbreaking to see someone so strong, so interesting that lost.
And then there is Michael. Even though the only point of view we get is Rebecca’s, I absolutely LOVED Michael. She keeps getting letters from him and they are amazing, I loved waiting to read them as much as Rebecca did.
“Everyone’s talking guy talk, and someone says, okay, Meat, you got the Lieutenant (yeah, that’s you), the Playmate of the Year, and Raquel Welch, and they’re all standing here, smiling at you – which one do you pick? So, of course, I said you. And you know what, I mean it. Because – I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you – but, you are really built, Rebbeca.
P.S. Are you laughing, or sitting there all pissed off?”
It is interesting how at first, she just keeps herself in check because he is out there, and the possibility that he will end up killed is huge and she needs to protect her heart. But he is so insistent she really can’t help falling in love with him. And every time someone was brought in , I held my breath along with her, until he did eventually come. When he was sent home, and gave her the picture of his beloved dog as a goodbye gift, it was all I could do stop from sobbing.
Another point is how both characters are extremely young – and
Michael is even younger : she is 21 , he is 19. That they are both so fucked-up is so freaking sad. But again, I just loved how Rebecca went after him to see if what they had was real or not. I have no idea if they will ever really work. He is not only younger and injured but also from a different background which in real life may prove their doom but he is also quite possibly the only one who will be there and UNDERSTAND when she wakes up screaming from her nightmares. And then, there is one scene when he gives her flowers – and it is fuelled with meaning and with the sense of humor they both shared and I think: yeah, they will be alright.
Plus, they have Otis, the dog.
Thea: Again, I have to agree with Ana – this is a character-heavy book, and it is in Rebecca’s characterizations that this novel really shines. Frankly, if it wasn’t for Rebecca’s heartfealt, painful narration, The Road Home would not have been half as good because of how skimpy it is in terms of plot – but because Rebecca is such a compelling, strong-yet-broken character, the novel just works. Rebecca is tough, physically pushing herself to the edge of sanity and exhaustion as she dedicates herself to her job, triaging as the never-ending stream of injured men following the Tet flood the base’s hospital. In an attempt to keep herself from thinking too much about any one thing, Rebecca dedicates herself to work. One of my favorite passages from this book is from Rebecca, trying to explain why one particular death at her hands affected her so much more than any of the other atrocities she’s seen – she focuses on the one death, because the others are too overwhelming. As Rebecca tries to cope with her own demons, drinking heavily to take the edge off, she also relies on her friendships with her superior officer, Major Doyle, and a romantic friendship with a drafted grunt named Michael.
I too loved Michael’s letters to Rebecca, and his character (though an aside: I fear I will never understand why Ana creates these emotional bonds to such a minor character in the overall scope of the novel! He’s barely in the book, and this is Rebecca’s story, not really Michael’s! But again, that’s a difference in our reading habits. I digress). The strained romance between these two very damaged characters is a touching one, though in the big picture, the appeal for me is not so much the romantic love between the two as it is about both Rebecca and Michael trying to become whole people again, and supporting each other to find whatever strength and happiness they can.
More interesting to me than Michael and the romance, however, was the character of Major Doyle and the odd friendship she and Rebecca form. Unlike the usual butch or hardass army woman stereotype, Major Doyle is a tough, no-nonsense career nurse, but she’s also a physically beautiful woman. She feels a responsibility for Rebecca much in the way an older sister would, and as Major Doyle’s story is gradually revealed, her friendship with Becky is one of the highest points in this novel. When Rebecca returns to “the World” and meets with her old friends, other well-to-do 22 year olds who are married happily with children and working dutifully as secretaries and wives, the contrast between Rebecca’s old friendships and the tough, soul-searching talks she and Major Doyle had are all the more glaring.
Other characters that bode mentioning are Rebecca’s family – Rebecca’s strained relationship with her father, her worried mother, and her draft-dodging brother. Things are tough all around, and Ms. White tackles these different relationships with gritty realism. Rebecca’s relationships are forever changed just as Rebecca is changed by the war, and Ms. White does not try to talk-down or sugar-coat any of it. There is a lot of darkness and grit to this book – but there’s also hope and the promise of future happiness and healing.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: This is such a hard book, made so easy to be read; with no easy answers, loads of truly flawed characters, and problems with no simple solution. I LOVED this book. Oh man. I loved this book so much I feel like reading it again. Rebecca and Michael are awesome. Yes, I have resorted to “love” and “awesome” because I am reduced to a puddle of blubbering nonsense. Well done Miss Angie and Thanks.
Thea: The Road Home is a gritty read, full of horror and hope. As a heroine, Rebecca is one of the finest characters I have read in a long time. Though it is a bit light on plot and content in terms of the war itself, the strength of its characters and its dedicated, respectful message to veterans more than compensates for any thematic skimp. Powerful, raw, and emotional, The Road Home is a book that deserves to be read by all.
“Bodies – some alive, some not – were literally stacked up all over the place, a scene so grisly that even one of her nightmares couldn’t have created it.
By the third day, they were being given amphetamines to stay awake, pausing only long enough to slug them down with cold strong coffee before moving on to the next patient. Rebecca worked on complete medical auto-pilot, starting IVs, stopping bleeding, and cutting off limbs that were only hanging by tendons to save the surgeons time. “
Additional Thoughts: The Road Home is actually a fifth book to complement a series of books about the Vietnam War but the only one with Rebecca as the main character. The first four books were written by the author under the name of Zach Emerson and are known as the Echo Company series. The books follow Michael Jennings – Rebecca’s romantic interest – from the moment he is drafted to go to War until the night before the Tet Offensive. It is in these books that we actually see how they met and how he fell in love with Rebecca.
* Echo Company #1: Welcome to Vietnam (1991)
* Echo Company #2: Hill 568 (1991)
* Echo Company #3: ‘Tis The Season (1991)
* Echo Company #4: Stand Down (1992)
I had a hard time trying to find covers for these and they all seem to be out of print!
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Thea: 8 – Excellent
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