People of the Whale by Linda Hogan
WW Norton, $14.95 paperback
Sand Queen by Helen Benedict
Soho Press, $25.00
Libraries are such dangerous places: I was just scanning the shelves, not looking for anything particular, a few months ago, when People of the Whale slid into my hand. I knew the Pulitzer-nominated Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s work, of course, but somehow had lacked the courage to pick it up when it came out. Another day, a couple of months later, there was Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen sitting on the New Arrivals shelf.
Both are incredibly strong anti-war novels. Both tell the tales of young people who, on impulse, sign up for the US military. Thomas Witka Just finds himself transported from his far northern Native American to the jungles of Viet Nam. In pre-9/11 universe, nice Catholic girl Kate Brady, signs up to prove herself to her sheriff father, to her fiance, and most of all, to herself, and then suddenly finds herself in the midst of the Iraqi desert war, where the ideals of bringing honor to her family and democracy to the Middle East have nothing to do with her new reality.
In Sand Queen, Benedict gives us three tales: Kate’s as she tries to be the best she can be amidst the increasingly insane war, Naema Jassim’s, a student living near the military base, who is trying to find out what the Americans have done with her father and brother, and glimpses of a horribly damaged, post-deployment Kate, struggling to hold any part of her mind and soul together. Benedict, the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, also gives us the story the military’s brutality toward its women soldiers, and the insanity of the war itself. It’s a book I’d to any young woman — or young man — even thinking about enlisting in the military in these times. For the rest of us, it’s a necessary education and a chillingly accurate look at this particular war. I could barely put it down until I finished it.
It took me several weeks to read the much complex People of the Whale. I had to keep putting it down, saving it for times when I could give it my full attention, when I could ride the many layers, absorb absolute poetry of the writing — and be willing hear the stories Hogan tells:
The stories of two young people, growing up in a remote fishing-based native community, of their parents, and grandparents and others who came before them, of the moment when the just-married Thomas and his buddies, on impulse (and on alcohol), sign up for that distant war in Viet Nam, of the war itself, as Thomas makes his way, of his MIA years living quietly, and with some peace, in a remote fishing and rice-growing village, of Ruth’s life, raising their son and fishing in the first village Thomas left behind, of Thomas’ impossible years in San Francisco after he is “rescued” from his Vietnamese village, of his years back in his original village, and the lives of the son Ruth raises and of his daughter, Lin, who travels from Viet Nam to find a different man than the father she remembers. Hogan gives us a profound look at that war, at it’s impact on the lives America’s most native sons and daughters, and at the breadth of the damage done.
There are no easy heroes in this book, but many, including both Ruth and Lin, who will continue to live with me for a long time to come. Even more compelling than Hogan’s Power.
* Lesbian content: One of Kate’s two female buddies is, to everyone’s understanding, a dyke. She is sexually harassed and brutalized even more than Kate is. Of the three women in her unit, only Kate is still surviving, and just barely, by the end of the book.