Beneath the Wall, by Eryn LaPlant (Black Lyon Publishing, 2012, 313 pages)
This is a debut novel for LaPlant, who lives in Springfield, Illinois surrounded by history–oddly fitting for a woman who freely admits to fantasize about living in the past.
Beneath the Wall is a love story set against the backdrop of the early years of the Vietnam War. The book aspires to be more then a romance novel, but the backdrop of war notwithstanding it succeeds primarily on that level. Which is strange, because I do not normally read romance novels, let alone review them. I have nothing against them, other than that I just never got into the genre that much. But I was seduced by the promise of something more, and by the time I realized that this was chiefly a story about a fascinating woman and her loves (yes–I said “loves”), I was hooked.
Julianne Parker is a reporter for The Village Voice who, in 1966, manages to wheedle an assignment with a Marine contingent in Nam as a war correspondent. A former Army brat, Parker couldn’t settle for sitting out the incipient conflict comfortably in New York, and soon she finds herself in the thick of the action.
Parker soon finds that being the only woman (and a damned good-looking one at that–this is a romance novel remember) amid battle weary, women-bereft Marines is not easy, and many of the men give her a very hard time. One man, in particular, has his eyes set on her and he will eventually seek an opportunity to have her whether she wants him or not.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. Her military and journalistic background is something completely unknown to her children. The book opens in 2005 as her husband, Allister, and their children are grieving her loss. One of the kids, Jesse, encounters a stranger at her funeral who tells him that his mother was one of the best writers he ever knew. Neither Jesse nor his siblings know what the man is talking about. Soon, however, they discover–hidden under floorboards beneath a closet wall-a journal that begins in 1966. They will learn things about mom, whom they always thought of as June Cleaver, that they never would have imagined.
After arriving in Vietnam, Parker soon earns the respect of the Marines in Dakota company and manages to find herself in firefights where she distinguishes herself. At one point she is forced to kill an enemy soldier with a sidearm. She soon finds herself drawn to “Mack”, a very good looking, muscular half-Japanese half American, and before long it is difficult for the two to hide their feelings. Mack’s superiors are always warning him to stay away from the girl, but he just can’t. And she can’t keep away from him either.
The early sixties were just starting to become the decade of sex, drugs and rock and roll, so Parker is probably typical of many girls at the time. She has never been with a man. I was expecting some steamy moments between Parker and Mack, but they don’t occur until the two of them encounter a minister and his Vietnamese wife and they decide, amid the horrors of war, to get married. After that, we are treated to the bodice-ripping good times that many people probably buy romance novels for. Naturally, I was duty bound to read those sections closely.
Of course, you are thinking “How can any love story set in the jungles of Vietnam and amid the horrors of napalm and VC tunnels ever end happily?” Admit it. I know you were thinking that very thing. Good question. I kept waiting for the balloon of true love to burst in a hail of bullets. I didn’t have to wait too long.
I don’t want to say too much more, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you if you decide to read this novel, and I recommend that you do. I will say, however, that there is more than one love in Julianne’s life, there is tragic loss, and it all leaves you wondering how the poor husband who just buried her could have been so peripheral to the most exciting and sensual part of her life.
LaPlant did not serve in Vietnam, but she researched the goings on there in 1966-68 very well, and she writes very convincingly–even if at times things go a little over the top. Mack is very heroic, and is constantly performing great acts of derring do as befits a swashbuckling romantic leading man; and Parker herself has a reputation for the same stubborn and rash behavior. Rather than leave her lover behind, she steals a Jeep and follows Mack into the bloody battle of Khe Sanh. This begs credulity, of course, but remember that this is a love story and, I suppose, love does crazy things.
The ending to this story caught me by surprise, relieving the suspense that had kept me reading all along (although I was not quite sure why until it was all over). Long after the sometimes drawn-out descriptions of war have ended, you find yourself in awe of the characters in the book for whom love has overpowered the horror.
I will tell you that the story ends as it begins–beneath a Wall. Not the wall of Julianne’s closet, but the Wall in Washington, D.C. that is engraved with thousands of names of those who fell in our least popular war.
Nice touch. And a decent first novel.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris