See the previous book in this series, Stand Down.
Before I was as internet-savvy as I am now, I had a rather difficult time knowing when books I really liked were part of an even larger series. Back in 1996, I read Knee-Deep in the Dead several times before I found it, with some resultant apoplexy, that there were three more books. I discovered Lord Conrad’s Lady several years after lamenting the relative shortness of the preceding four-book series.
Topically, it was once again after at least two times reading the Echo Company that I realized there was even more to the series than I thought. In my defense, I had no idea at the time that Zack Emerson was a pen-name; nor would I have supposed that Ellen Emerson White would write the final book in that series (a) under her real name and (b) so long after the preceding books.
Stand Down is, by far, the most mature, fully-fleshed, and emotionally devastating book in the series. It’s essentially the culmination of all the character development Emerson/White has done thus far, and while it’s possible that I’m simply a literary Philistine with all the appreciation for character as a Real World fan, I really do think that Emerson/White does a truly spectacular job of writing believable and sympathetic characters.
The point of view reverts to that of Rebecca Phillips, the heroine of ‘Tis the Season, shortly after the events of Stand Down. Michael is back in the jungle, and the Chu Lai evacuation hospital is dealing with the bloody and soul-crushing effects of the Tet offensive. The endless stream of casualties that come to the evac is so large and unending that the staff survives mostly on caffeine and Darvon; Rebecca’s wounds from her ordeal have not healed, and her psychological state is even worse. Her manifold issues are only exacerbated by her sudden attachment to Michael and her fear that he—like so many of the young men under her care—will go home in pieces.
The first half of the novel—”The War”—serves both to develop Rebecca post-trauma, as well as flesh out not only her family and home issues, but also her complicated and delightful relationships with her superior officers and comrades. So as not to give too much away, let me simply say that—shit happens—Rebecca ultimately finds herself back in America, in an even worse state than ever.
This second part—”The World”—is perhaps what makes the series what it is. It’s easy to find books about the soldiers in Vietnam; I’ve got a lot of them1. It’s a little more difficult to find books that deal with the aftermath of the war, and not in the straightforward way of the dead and the wounded (Tim O’Brien is an exception to this). Rebecca’s anxiety and depression and loneliness upon returning to America is so strong and so well written that the reader can’t help but feel stricken with the same existential angst. We as readers never knew the version of Rebecca that existed prior to the series, but that particular seems as alien and remote to our Rebecca as she does to us. Her inability to reconnect with her parents, cope with the memory of Michael, or readjust into civilian life becomes the main antagonist, to our unending dismay: the enemy is no longer a young, armed man in black pajamas; it is us and our fragility, and it is frightening.
I won’t divulge what happens, though I will express my pleasure that White didn’t resort to a “happily ever after” ending as she very well could have. While perhaps nothing is ultimately solved within the literal story of the book, we at least receive a hint as to where things may head in the unwritten future, and that is oddly satisfactory. I am usually the sort of person who craves definitive endings, and yet despite the intense feeling of melancholy that this book arouses in me, I am somehow pleased with White’s resolution.
The Road Home is a bookend to a series that was never really meant for young children; this final book, more than any other, deals with a sort of emotional weight that would either depress or bypass anyone not equipped to handle it. It is, I think, deceptively marketed, and could do with quite a bit more attention. It—taken with the preceding series—remains one of my favorite books of all time.
- Everything from Caputo’s A Rumor of War to Leonard B. Scott’s popcorn novels[↩]