Book Group Report 2011 the Lotus Eaters,

Eight "regular" members, one prospective member, and one visitor braved the weather and the "alertes météo" on November 4th to meet at LeBookshop.  Having discussed North Korea at our October meeting, we remained in Asian mode for November.  The Lotus Eaters, a first novel by Tatjana Soli, is set in Southeast Asia, primarily Saigon, from 1963 to 1975.  It is about Helen, an American photojournalist caught up in the adrenaline rush of war.  The characters are based on real-life photojournalists of the Vietnam War, one of whom was the first American female war correspondent to die in action.  It is a story about war and why it can be difficult, if not impossible, to return "home," but it is also a love story of sorts.  

Jan, who recommended the book, started the discussion by telling us that she discovered the book when she was on a trip to Colorado and attended a book club there.  She said that, although her father was a great World War II buff and had almost every book ever written about that war, she had never before been able to read anything about the Vietnam War.  Not only did the Vietnam War have a huge negative impact on her generation, as well as her parents' generation, but it was the first war that the US overtly lost.  (editor's note: The "official" word on that is that the US did not lose the war; the South Vietnamese did.)  Jan, like several others at the meeting, felt personally affected by the war in Vietnam.  Yet it is amazing how little we actually know about it.  Jan read us some statistics.  In July 1694 there were 16,000 US "advisors" in Vietnam.  In late 1965 there were 180,000.  In mid-1966 there were 350,000, and in mid-1967, there were 500,000.  She also shared with us the astounding fact that the number of VN veterans who have committed suicide is higher than the number of GI's killed in action.  (ed.- More than 58,000 names appear on "The Wall," the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington.  Suicides among Vietnam veterans have been said to be 50,000 to 100,000.  Another source states that while statistics vary, they do agree on one thing: more than twice as many American Vietnam veterans have died after returning home than were killed in the fourteen years of actual combat.)  The horror continues.  

Jan read from a report by Harvard Sitikoff, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, "At first, rather than giving returning veterans of the war welcoming parades, Americans seemed to shun, if not denigrate, the 2 million-plus Americans who went to Vietnam, the 1.6 million who served in combat, the 300,000 physically wounded, the many more who bore psychological scars, the 2,387 listed as "missing in action," and the more than 58,000 who died. Virtually nothing was done to aid veterans and their loved ones who needed assistance in adjusting. Then a torrent of fiction, films, and television programs depicted Vietnam vets as drug-crazed psychotic killers, as vicious executioners in Vietnam and equally vicious menaces at home. Not until after the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., did American culture acknowledge their sacrifice and suffering, and concede that most had been good soldiers in a bad war."  

There are far more dysfunctional veterans than following previous wars.  According to Sitikoff, as many as three-quarters of a million Vietnam veterans "became part of the lost army of the homeless. And the nearly 700,000 draftees, many of them poor, badly educated, and nonwhite, who had received less than honorable discharges, depriving them of educational and medical benefits, found it especially difficult to get and keep jobs, to maintain family relationships, and to stay out of jail. Although a majority of Americans came to view dysfunctional veterans as needing support and medical attention rather than moral condemnation, the Veterans Administration, reluctant to admit the special difficulties faced by these veterans and their need for additional benefits, first denied the harm done by chemicals like Agent Orange and by the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicting as many as 700,000, and then stalled on providing treatment." (The full text is available on internet.  Jan says that although Sitikoff wrote that three quarters of the American soldiers serving in Vietnam ended up homeless, she remembers it as 300,000 out of 1,000,000.)


Jan noted that the Vietnam War caused more destruction to US society than anything but the Civil War.  It practically split the country in half once again.  In her opinion, there was one good result though.  Congress passed a joint resolution in 1973, the War Powers Resolution, intended to check the power of the President in committing the US to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.  (editor's note:  The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.  It was since disregarded by President Clinton in 1999 during the bombing campaign in Kosovo, and again by President Obama in 2011, when he did not seek congressional approval for the attack on Libya.)

Jan is currently reading Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, a Rhodes Scholar and former marine during the Vietnam War whose PTSD was not diagnosed until much later.  Danielle Trussoni, who reviewed The Lotus Eaters for the NY Times (text on the internet), is the author of Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir.  Her father served as a tunnel rat, searching the Cu Chi tunnels for Vietnamese guerillas hiding out underground.  He was also unaware of and even denied the PTSD which took such a toll on him and his family.  Danielle was unable to join us for the discussion (as were others because of the storms).  She had contacted Ms. Soli to ask about an author call-in during our meeting.  Unfortunately the time difference and our location underground for the meeting prevented that, but Ms. Soli asked Danielle to send her regards.  

Jan felt that The Lotus Eaters was a very approachable way to read and learn about the Vietnam War.  The character of Helen is based on female photojournalists Dickey Chapelle and Catherine Leroy.  Dickey Chappelle was one of the first female war correspondents.  She covered WW II and the Korean conflict, and in her mid-forties she went to Vietnam.  She was known for her tenacity and her willingness to "do anything to get the story."  She became the first female reporter to win approval from the Pentagon to jump with American troops in Vietnam.  On November 4, 1965, Chapelle was killed by a land mine while on patrol with a platoon, becoming the first war correspondent killed in Vietnam. (ed.- our meeting was on the 46th anniversary of her death)  Jan noted the reference in the book to Helen's pearl earrings; Dickey Chapelle also wore pearl earrings.  Catherine Leroy died in 2006 in California.  She was born in France and was brought up in a convent in Paris.  She said she had been moved by the images of war she saw in Paris Match magazine, and decided to travel to Vietnam to "give war a human face."  She said that when she was a child, photojournalists were her heroes.  Helen also was interested in the human factor.  She photographed a soldier passing a roll of Lifesavers through a fence to a Vietnamese girl.  "That was the shot. ... Later it turned out to be a cover and then led to her first award, but for her the value of the picture was that it returned her purpose - to find small glimmers of humanity."  Jan read from an article written by Donald R. Winslow just after Catherine Leroy's death: "Many American soldiers along with male war correspondents were shocked to see Leroy in 1966 when she landed in Vietnam on a one-way ticket from Paris through Laos to Saigon, with her small Leica in hand. She was only 21 (or thereabouts) and her diminutive presence, at five feet tall and less than 90 pounds, didn't match the profile of the average foreign war correspondent."  A year later she became the first accredited journalist to participate in a combat parachute jump.  Another detail in Helen's character can be compared to Catherine Leroy.  Leroy was wounded by a mortar, but one month later she was back in action.  Jan has seen a series of her photos.  Among her most famous photos was one of an anguished marine trying in vain to save a wounded buddy, and then one of that dead marine alone in the devastated landscape.  Like Robert Capa (for whom a street in Montpellier is named, and Jan lives on that street), Leroy wanted to show war up close and personal.  After Vietnam, she covered conflicts in several other countries.  She was the first woman to receive the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for conflict photography, given for her coverage of the civil war in Lebanon.  After reporting in Lebanon, she retired from journalism.  In 1972, she filmed and directed "Operation Last Patrol," a movie about Ron Kovic and antiwar Vietnam veterans. Kovic wrote of his experiences in the 1976 book "Born on the Fourth of July," which was the basis for the 1989 movie.

We talked a bit about the reasoning behind the war, and someone said that there were economic reasons such as oil behind the Iraq war.  Maggie mentioned that there was also an economic side to the Vietnam War, since southeast Asia was the main source of natural rubber.  Mariannick said that the author was not very "tender" with the French.  She cited the report of the French pushing the locals off boats into the water, both in Vietnam and in Dakar.  Kimberly also recognized a negative attitude toward the French, in that the American soldiers did not want to be compared to the French.  She, who is too young to remember the Vietnam War, said she googled and was surprised to see that the US had funded French involvement in Indochina.  Someone reminded us that, at that time, France was recovering from WW II and the Marshall Plan was in effect.  Lorraine voiced the question of why the US didn't learn from its mistakes in Vietnam and not go into Iraq.  Sue referred us to the book The Conscience of a Liberal, by economist Paul Krugman, which studies the past 80 years of American history in the context of economic inequality, and said that the American public does not realize the importance of the vote.  As the discussion became even more lively and borderline political, we reminded ourselves that AWG is an apolitical association.

Maggie talked about an organization started by her father in her hometown during the Vietnam war to support, not the war, but "our boys in Vietnam."  It was called The Committee That Cares, and members, who represented the American Legion, the VFW, the high school and all local associations arranged for letters and "care packages" to be sent to men from the township (there were no women) serving in Vietnam.  Maggie recently came across some letters from servicemen to the Committee, and some were quite amusing.  e.g.  "Thank you for the food package.  Kool-aid is a great luxury here in Vietnam.  However, sugar is almost non-existent except in the far rear.  May I suggest you send the pre-sweetened kind."  Karen noted that she has read and re-read Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which was frequent reading for Helen in The Lotus Eaters.  Someone spoke of arrogance with regard to US involvement in Vietnam, but Jan said she felt that it was ideology, but not arrogance.  She said that The Wall in Washington is very impressive.

Sue said she liked the writer's style.  Jan saw a video of the author, in which she said that her style is based on a framework.  That could be compared to the frames searched for by the photojournalists.  Jan asked how we felt about the fact that the book starts with the fall of Saigon and then flashes back, and asked how we felt about the end of the book.  (No details about that ending, since our visitors had not yet read the book.)  She personally did not like the start and the flashbacks, but Maggie said that, since she arrived in Vietnam in 1995, a month before the 20th anniversary of what the Vietnamese call the "reunification" rather than the fall of Saigon, she was able to plunge directly into the story.  She also said that she was surprised by the ending.  Others admitted that they did not like the end of the story; it should have ended sooner, and the last part was unnecessary.  Julie questioned why Helen went to Vietnam, and Maggie said that it was to prove something, to prove that she was better than her brother.  Julie said she should have learned something about photography first.  Kimberly said she was naïve.  (ed.- Did anyone ask how much Catherine Leroy knew about photography before she went to Vietnam?)  Julie asked why Helen didn't simply join the army if she wanted to one-up her brother.  Maggie doubted Helen would have wanted to sign up to kill people, but was reminded that women weren't given combat duty.  Jan said that Helen really wanted to know the real story about how her brother was killed.  Ginger surprised all of us by saying that she didn't think the book was well-written at all.  For example, she didn't find any really beautiful or memorable sentences.  Julie said that, with a good writer, you don't necessarily notice the beautiful sentences.  She said she felt she was "right there with her" and thus felt that she was a good writer.  Kimberly said that although she has never known war, she could relate to the story, and to Helen's fear.  She also particularly liked the references to bricks in a wall, and that you can't just have one brick.  Jan said the author did a good job with Helen's premonitions in dreams, repeating them until they made sense.  She also liked the "back and forth" between Helen and Darrow, and she said she liked the book even more the second time she read it.  Ginger felt that it was like a connect-the-dots.  Lorraine wondered about books set in foreign countries, and the relationships with the people in those countries.  Did Helen get into the minds of the Vietnamese, or was she just passing through?  Maggie mentioned the fact that Helen, unlike the other journalists and so many others in Saigon, had tried to learn the language, and that she ate and even enjoyed Vietnamese food, particularly the pho soup.  Definitely not the image of the "ugly American."  Karen felt the language was anachronistic; the author used the language of "now" and not of the 1960's.  Karen also got the impression that Helen was seduced by Vietnam, and not by her need for adventure.  Maggie cited a sentence that she found particularly captivating (pun intended).  "She had been lying paralyzed in a field earlier that day and now stood in this room the same night, and the two parts were not meant to fit."  She appreciated what Linh liked about Americans, "their innocence, their willingness to share their life story with a stranger," but she also noted a sentence that rang true to her own experience with the people in Vietnam, more than 20 years after the war.  "It was a reflex, mostly a bad habit, taking advantage of foreigners."  The remark heard by Helen over and over again, "These people simply don't value life like we do," reminded Maggie of part of our discussion of North Koreans in Nothing to Envy in October.

During the meeting, films such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and 
The Deer Hunter were mentioned, and Lorraine called our attention to Hearts and Minds, an American documentary film about the Vietnam War directed by Peter Davis which premiered at the 1974 film festival in Cannes, and which won an Academy Award in 1975 for best documentary film.  The film's title is based on a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson: "The ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there."


Several related books were also mentioned:

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham  (Ginger)
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien (which was also suggested as a book group read several years ago, but was not chosen)
Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden, by Tim Page (a photojournalist's return to Vietnam and Cambodia)Street Without Joy, by Bernard B. Fall (the title refers to Highway 1 during the "French" war in Vietnam)

Sue extended our thanks to Jan, saying that the book made her willing to read about Vietnam, which is exactly what Jan herself said at the beginning of the discussion.We will not meet at LeBookshop in December.  Once again, Anne has extended an invitation to share the seasonal spirit with readings and goodies at her apartment.  Next on the reading list, for January, is The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls.  We may also read Half Broke Horses, by the same author, written after Castle, but in fact, a precursor.

note from Rosie, who did not attend the meeting :  
RE the book - it was very vivid, and I found myself getting irritated with the romantic story line because it kept interfering with the immersion in the life of Vietnam! And sometimes too I found the romantic aspect was horribly overwritten, eg. bottom of page 138, ...a devouring shade etc.

But in the end I found it just all too much war!

(sent by Julie) From an interview on Fiction Writers Review:

Did you travel to Vietnam (and/or Cambodia) in the course of writing this book? I traveled in Asia briefly with my husband years before I thought of writing the book. Once I was deep into the research, I planned a trip to Vietnam that had to be cancelled due to a family emergency. But then a strange thing happened once I had the first draft down—I had this particular place so strong in my head, it was literally feeding the story. I was afraid that if I went to Vietnam that the difference between what was in my imagination and what I found in contemporary Vietnam would break the dream of the story for me. Going back to your research question, I found the right detail set off a chain of events; that was its value rather than strictly providing verisimilitude for the book. I liken it to the movie Apocalypse Now. That is a fever dream of Vietnam, Coppola’s dream of Vietnam. You aren’t going to find that place on a tour. The Saigon of the book is one made from my characters: Helen, Linh, and Darrow. I’m happy beyond belief when I have people tell me that they were there, and the book brings the time back to them, but the setting is foremost an organic thing intertwined with the characters. I’m planning on finally taking the trip this winter. I think it will be an amazing experience.