The Vietnam Conflict ended nearly forty years ago, yet it still touches our lives. Two recent young adult (YA) books are prime examples. One, with a contemporary setting (Everybody Sees the Ants) depicts how lives are still affected by what happened. The setting for the other is historical (I Pledge Allegiance) and provides an example of the war as a resource for current literature. Neither book is a guts-and-glory war story—in both the war serves more as a backdrop in the lives of the characters. Although the two books are very different, they do have one element in common—a recurring dream by the hero. I’ll describe the two books separately in a two-part post.
Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King
This is a not an easy book to describe because it juggles three themes: bullying, life in a dysfunctional family, and an aftereffect of the Vietnam War. Lucky Linderman is a high school freshman who has learned to cope with serial bullying and seriously odd and deficient parents in a strange way—by escaping into the world of his grandfather, a soldier missing in action (MIA) in Laos during the war. The escape is a surreal dream world Lucky regularly visits. He is always on the same mission: to rescue his grandfather from a jungle prison camp. The situation is always different, jungle-gritty, and enlightening in some way for Lucky, who in his dream world has the strength and skills he doesn’t possess in the real world. Through his repeated visits Lucky gets to know this dream version of his grandfather rather well. As he does, the reader gradually comes to learn more and more about Lucky’s less-than-ideal life and how he came to be the way he is.
After the Vietnam War ended and Lucky’s grandfather was declared missing in action (MIA), his grandmother became an activist who made it her lifelong mission to keep the MIA issue alive. Lucky’s father never knew his missing father and as a result never really learned how to be a father himself. Lucky’s mother, whose practices self-therapy by swimming laps for hours each day, is just as ineffective a parent because she is in denial about the family’s deficiencies. And with eight years of manipulation and humiliation by Nathan, a manipulative and aggressive classmate bully, tossed into the mix, we begin to see just how badly Lucky has been misnamed.
The bulk of the story takes place over several weeks during summer vacation when Lucky’s mother flees with Lucky to her brother’s house in Arizona following a particularly serious bullying incident. During this time Lucky at last comes to terms with his life and some of his peculiarities when he meets an older teenage girl who seems to have the world by the tail. Through his new friend, who has her own serious problems, and the aunt and uncle he is staying with (also dysfunctional), Lucky attains a new perspective on his world and the Vietnam dream finally runs its course. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions about Lucky’s sanity, but this is a book complex and clever enough to be enjoyed by an adult too (I did). As for the ants, well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.