Admittedly, I was intrigued by the premise of Death Coming Up the Hill before I picked it up. After all, it is a novel in verse-haiku actually, that has the exact number of syllables of the United States’ casualties from the Vietnam War in 1968.
I was also skeptical about whether the author could tell a full story operating within the constraints of haiku poetry. The answer is emphatically yes: instead of limiting the power of the story, writing in such a format, Death Coming Up the Hill’s sparse prose packs true emotional power.
Death Coming Up the Hill tells the story of Ashe, a 17 year old junior who sees his senior classmates being drafted into the Vietnam conflict. His history teacher opens up the bitter realities of the war to him through class discussions that ultimately help him to better understand the conflicts in his own life. This novel contrasts the Vietnam War with the ongoing battles between Ashe’s parents at home. Their conflict stems from the family’s beginnings. Ashe’s parents had him out of wedlock during his father’s senior season of football at the University of Arizona. His birth builds resentment in his father who believes Ashe’s birth cost him a shot at a promising football career in the NFL.
Ashe’s parents have decided to stay together only because of their mutual love for him. Their resentment for one another is only exacerbated by her mother’s decidedly anti war stance. Her father is a staunch supporter of the war, while her mother fills her time with antiwar rallies and protests.
Much like the guerilla conflict across the globe in Vietnam, Ashe’s home life is full of landmines, ambushes, grenades and other wartime hazards that explode as his parents’ relationship continues to disintegrate. When Ashe’s mother becomes pregnant with an anti war protestor’s child, it ends any possibility of a peaceful resolution to their conflict.
Divided into chapters by the weeks of 1968, with the number of casualties each week matching the number of syllables in the chapter, Death Coming Up the Hill is a stark, poignant tale that accurately captures the tension and despair of the Vietnam period and its impact on one family.
Death Coming up the Hill is a good fit for middle grades and above. The subject matter is intense, but this easy to read novel in verse will resonate with reluctant readers and those interested in historical fiction and the Vietnam War time period.
(Cover used with the permission of the author)
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