Title: Palace Dog
Author: R.E. Nelson
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages/Word Count: 206 Pages
At a Glance: A moving and romantic story that brings to life, in an atypical way, a time and place that many would rather forget.
Reviewed By: Sadonna
Blurb: In April 1975, as the government in Saigon is falling, Michael Andrews prepares to make his way back to Vietnam to find the love he was forced to leave.
But Michael’s journey begins four years earlier. He joins the Air Force to keep out of the Army and out of Vietnam, but his first assignment is teaching English in Saigon to members of the Vietnamese military in an Army program called Palace Dog.
As an artist, and a man, before his time in Vietnam, Michael found life lonely and unsatisfying. In the midst of war, Michael searches for direction and meaning. He ultimately finds love and hope with Thao, a young Vietnamese art student, only to have their already uncertain future wrenched from them when he is pulled out of the country.
For Michael, his return in 1975 is inevitable and without question, though the outcome he hopes for is anything but assured.:
Review: I really hope that younger people will read this, although I worry that they won’t. As a student of history and, in particular, the war in Vietnam, I was immediately intrigued by this book. I’ve made it to SE Asia but only to Thailand, with tiny forays into Laos and Myanmar, and I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t do the Cambodia extension.
One of my favorite courses in college was America in the 60s. I was a kid then, and I never really appreciated how demoralized and depressed and disappointed young people must have been in their government and the older generation until I took that course. The Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights fight, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the war in Vietnam all contributed to the complete disillusionment of a generation. I’ve read a LOT of 1960s/70s Vietnam narratives by different types of writers and participants in this war. This book also stood out as a story nearly as much about the people of Vietnam as the American protagonist.
Southeast Asia is a very different place for Michael Andrews. The weather alone takes time to get used to. The crowds of people, the black market, the traffic, the constant noise – all are very different from his American life. He’s also dealing with keeping his sexuality under wraps. We get to see how his fellow teachers are dealing with being in the country as well. As we see this story from Michael’s point of view, our perspective is that of the outsider – observing the very different world around him. One of the things I particularly appreciated was that this story focused not so much on the military aspects of Michael’s journey but more on the personal relationship side. We see Richard and Danny and Randy, who are fellow Air Force guys, and each of them represents different experiences: the guy who is fighting everything and staying drunk/stoned to make it through; the guy who meets a Vietnamese woman and fathers a child; the closeted guy just trying to serve his time and get out. We even have friendly fire.
Michael is definitely on a different path and this book ultimately shows us his growth and development and acceptance – both in himself and how he wants to interact with the world. His rushing out to get things doesn’t seem to work well for him. As he comes to accept himself and what it is he really needs and wants, he learns to just back off and wait and take what is offered. His tentative relationship with Thao, the brother of one of his Vietnamese students, is, of course, the heart of this story and the romance. It’s not a steamy romance, per se, but it’s a solid love story of two characters caught up in a world where they have very little control.
Of course, the end of the story coincides with essentially the fall of Saigon. I was twelve years old when that occurred, and I still remember it. It was so strange to think that was truly the end of the Vietnam War. And, of course, if you happened to still be in Vietnam, it was far from the end of a lot of things – including execution, reeducation, hard labor and other dire circumstances. It’s clear the fear and desperation from those wanting to escape was fully warranted. I read the second half of the book dreading what might happen to Michael and Thao.
The author covered a lot of ground in this book, and I for one really enjoyed the journey. This is a beautifully written personal history type of a romance that I definitely recommend to anyone who is interested in reading about the time period, coming of age, or cross cultural relationships.
You can buy Palace Dog here: