Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
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 the story and their love starts 4 years earlier when Michael joins the Air Force to get out of combat and Vietnam only to be sent there to teach English to the Vietnamese military for a program called Palace Dog.
As an artist, 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.
Set against the background of the Vietnam war and the fall of Saigon, R. E. Nelson gives us a love story between an American soldier and Vietnamese artist that is deep in emotion, and full of drama of the times as it is surrounded by personal and social complexities. Taking place across a four year span, the plot and author reveal an appreciation for the culture of Vietnam that is both rich in texture and deep on history in Palace Dog.
A first novel for Nelson, Palace Dog rarely falls into the traps laid out for other authors writing in historical fiction. It helps that the author has traveled and lived in Vietnam (as well as other Middle Eastern and Asian countries) so he is intimately familiar with the sights and sounds and yes, aromas, that such foreign locals offer visitors. And he writes the story in such a way that you feel like you are walking down those streets, along with Michael, for the first time, experiencing the vibrancy, smells, color, and action of a Saigon marketplace at its busiest. The noise, the yelling which to Americans would seem as arguments which in turn is really a system of the daily haggling of seller and customer at play, the children begging in the streets along with the animals. It feels so real that Michael’s uncertainty and fear is understandable, because we would feel that way too. Also apparent, the separation between cultures and between the south Vietnamese soldiers living in disreputable conditions and the American military still trying to pull out a win. The juxtaposition in cultures and their clash is everywhere and Nelson portrays it with a clarity and attention to detail both remarkable and telling.
Michael Andrews, quite wrongly, thought he could skip the whole Vietnam war experience by joining the Air Force, thinking it would all be over by the time he was through. But as history tells us, Vietnam had a way of turning any military action by an enemy into failure, bogging it down by efficient guerrilla warfare and tactics that each nation (French, American…) who got involved was unprepared for. We didn’t understand the territory and we didn’t understand the people and the cost to all was atrocious.
Michael and his group of teachers represent a variety of perspectives, in all their physicality, mental and emotion stability. First there is Michael, a thoughtful man, more artist than soldier, who lands in Vietnam confused about his sexuality. That he and his fellow teachers are offered women and men (the last quietly) as sexual partners and something more is not a reality Michael knows how to deal with. It horrifies him as much as it intrigues him. For his friend and fellow teacher, Randy, Saigon presents a whole new world to explore and he does so with a vigor and sense of adventure at first admirable and then haunting as he falls in love with a local girl, an all too common situation back then. From Danny’s perspective, he finds he has to grow up and make decisions about his future and theirs. And then there is Richard, a troubled man whose pain and anger at his confusion (at being in Vietnam and perhaps something more) makes him an emotional time bomb on legs. How they handle their deployment to this cultured city breaking down under the constant bombardment and its casualties of war is as believable as every other aspect of this story. It’s a wide spectrum of behaviors and people that represented Americans , abroad.
Now that I’ve dealt with the Americans, I want to say that I fell in love with the Vietnamese characters created by Nelson. It feels right, from their facial features to the trappings of their houses, the culture described by the author is rich yet fraying. Even the tight family bonds, as seen in Thao and Tuan’s family, are being destroyed by the sons lost in combat and an uncertain future as the Northern Vietnamese get closer to winning and taking with each day. We start by meeting Tuan, a student of Michael’s who introduces him to his family, including his brother Thao. It is a relationship that stutters as first, as the language barrier is high. Nelson’s characters speak broken english as they would under these conditions. While some readers might find that dialog tough to follow, I thought it gave the relationship and story an authentic feel.
It would be easy for a romance to get buried under the enormity of the situation of Saigon at the time, and it almost happens here. But the restraint that Nelson shows in bringing along the relationship is needed. Because it’s not just the cultural obstacles that have to be overcome but Michael has to come to grips with his sexuality, a much harder leap to make. For Michael, sex with women has been uninspiring and frustrating. Now in Saigon, temptation is everywhere. And as he starts to explore his sexuality he also starts to realize his feelings for Thao go far beyond friendship. As to Thao? I will let those revelations fall as they will.
Palace Dog opens with Michael returning to Saigon to look for Thao and bring him to the US. It’s a mission fraught with danger and his chances for success slight at best. Saigon is about to fall. The middle story happens in Spring 1971. The ending once more returns for the last chapter of the war, for us and for Michael and Thao. It is journey of heartbreak, a clash of cultures and love set against a historic background of war and geopolitical change. Its rich and remarkable in its storytelling.
For anyone who remembers the scenes of people scrambling across rooftops to reach the last helicopters and planes taking off as the city falls, the anguish, desperation and sense of betrayal for those left behind felt as strong on those pages as it did the day I watched it happen on the tv. That Nelson was able to make this time in history come alive through a deep love and relationship between two men, Michael and Thao, is quite the achievement and makes this story one for all to read. Palace Dog is haunting, sometimes hard to read, emotionally compelling and its quiet joys will linger long time after you have finished their story. Its one of my highly recommended reads. And I will leave you with the images it brought back to mind as clear as the day they happened.
The last helicopter out of Saigon.
Cover artist: Paul Richmond. What a gorgeous portrait, perfect in everyway.
Sales Links: Dreamspinner Press eBook & Paperback All Romance (ARe) Amazon Buy It Here
ebook, 206 pages
Expected publication: February 27th 2015 by Dreamspinner Press