Thursday, October 6, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Knowing my strong preference for historical fiction, my brother-in-law recently recommended a book to me: Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Saenz. What a powerful book!

This is a Vietnam War novel, though largely set in the anxiety ridden homefront. It’s told from varying viewpoints, but mostly focused on the Espejo family, Mexican-Americans living in El Paso in 1967. The children (18-year-old twins Gustavo and Xochil and 13-year-old Charlie) are the focus, but their parents, Octavio and Lourdes, are also explored in depth. There are also chapters in the point of view of other boys, Gustavo’s peers, who have enlisted and gone off to war.

There is a lot of family dysfunction, largely due to the inability of the father to show any emotion other than disapproval. He particularly disapproves of his eldest son. It’s a painful dynamic, but not so awful that the book is ruined by cruelty. Thankfully, Lourdes is loving enough for two parents and the three children love each other deeply and aren’t afraid to show it.

The plot hinges on the fact that it is 1967, Gustavo is 18, and he’s waiting to hear from the draft board. He is vehemently anti-war, as is his sister (vocally), and his mother (silently). His father is firmly pro-war. He is the kind of father who berates his son because he has long hair and tells him that war will make him a man. It seems Octavio cannot wait for that draft notice to come. His own exuberant patriotism stems from a very early memory of his family fleeing Mexico in order to escape the violence of the Revolution. In gratitude for the life he has been able to make in America, he’s eager to sacrifice the son he doesn’t care much for.

There are times when Octavio recognizes his own cold-heartedness, maybe even with a twinge of regret, but there is never a point where he tries to change.

If there is a main protagonist, it is Gustavo. Gustavo wants to belong, but he doesn’t know where. He can’t believe in the war. He feels no particular allegiance to the U.S.. He isn’t a pacifist, per se, but he has no desire to kill other men, mainly because he fears what it will do to him. It isn’t only death that he fears, but also, even more, that he will turn into someone capable of killing. And yet, once that draft notice comes, his options are all bad. No matter what he does, it will mean separation from his loved ones and loss of what little innocence he has left.

There is a lot of emphasis on manhood. On toxic masculinity. And it’s sad but revealing how these very young men buy into the myths. We do see the horrors of the war through the eyes of the two boy-men who go off to Vietnam. As readers, we wait for the inevitable.

As a historical novel, the book pulls the reader into the time and place, as well as into the heads of these very conflicted characters. It shows the anxiety of the times. It’s a compelling read.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read many Vietnam War novels. This does sound really good.

    Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge