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Book Review: Flowers of the Dinh Ba Forest

I will never again look at an orchid in the way I did prior to reading Robert David Clark's novel, "Flowers of the Dinh Ba Forest." A fictional story about the Vietnam War, the plot oscillates between the American soldiers and the Viet Cong, and the villagers who were caught in between those two warring sides. Full of eloquent beauty, alongside guttural words that can only repulse, but ring true, the book made me laugh and cry several times. As is often the case with Vietnam stories, borne of experience only the Vets truly can understand, the book exemplified how often Vets knew in war, that there, "everything meant more than it ever would back home."
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Flowers of the Dinh Ba Forest
by Robert David Clark
Livingston Press, University of West Alabama, 2004
_www.livingstonpress.uwa.edu
Reviewed by Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

I will never again look at an orchid in the way I did prior to reading Robert David Clark's novel, "Flowers of the Dinh Ba Forest." A fictional story about the Vietnam War, the plot oscillates between the American soldiers and the Viet Cong, and the villagers who were caught in between those two warring sides. Full of eloquent beauty, alongside guttural words that can only repulse, but ring true, the book made me laugh and cry several times. As is often the case with Vietnam stories, borne of experience only the Vets truly can understand, the book exemplified how often Vets knew in war, that there, "everything meant more than it ever would back home."

While the book reeks of testosterone, which I found myself wanting to move back from, the very maleness of the book's environment gave it a fertile ground for its central theme of flowers. The plot of the orchids challenged the latrine stories. The plot of the orchids brought tenderness to the trenches. The plot of the orchids made me cry more than once.

This novel clearly and simply addresses the fact that "home" as the soldiers knew it no longer existed and was dead for them. Upon returning home, even if home had remained the same, the returning soldier was not the same. Not after those experiences that took humanity to its worse in a macrocosm, and sometimes to its best in a microcosm. The novel spoke of how some soldiers stayed longer in Vietnam than required, out of guilt over the loss of another soldier. A survivor's guilt. A character early on speaks of this guilt. He says, "We all going to live with it, Tucker. Maybe not at first, but as time goes on, I guess we're all going to have a measure of it." And in the novel's end, a Vietnamese soldier who defected to the American side replies to an American soldier who says the war "can't go on forever." The Vietnamese man says, "You are wrong. Inside here," he says, touching the American's forehead. "Inside here it will never end. The ying and the yang. I will still be living it. You will be in America remembering it." The American asked what if he never did think of it when he got home. The Vietnamese man replied, "Then a part of you will be out of balance."

America has barely begun to digest the atrocities that American soldiers participated in, and witnessed, during their service in Vietnam. Vets felt a hostile environment upon returning home, and kept things secret and hidden, often out of shame or guilt. The author, Clark, is a Vet who served in Vietnam from 1968-1969. You could tell that although this was fiction, the landscape had details an ordinary American would not imagine. I hope more Vets find ways, as Clark did, to release some of the profound images that I am sure live inside Vietnam Vets' as the Vietnamese man in the story said it would. As an American who lived through the Vietnam War, I also have profound guilt. And reading books such as Clark's book, is healing for me, too, as if Clark is giving a Sunday confessional, on behalf of us all.

The novel has a monkey that is kept at the American camp. The monkey causes much havoc, but they keep it around because the soldier who first kept him as a pet had died. Guilt kept the monkey around. But late in the story, a Viet Cong soldier expresses fears that if he is caught by the Americans, they will "put him on a chain and parade him through the camp like a monkey." Immediately, I was haunted by the American prison scandal in Iraq, that made global news in mid 2004. When American Soldiers *did* put a prisoner on a chain and parade him around like a monkey, while grinning happily, as if possessed by a demon, for the cameras. I am sure this book went to print before the Iraqi prisoner scandal hit the news. It was an odd coincidence. But a profound one, at that.

The plot in this novel takes many twists and turns. As one of the book's characters says at one point, "Monkeys - flies - (vanilla) beans - guilt. None of it made sense." The plot walked along the raised Vietnamese dykes of war, with all its incomprehensive madness. But then would step into the backwater of humane emotion, confusing matters with logic and guilt. The story leaves many unfinished plot trails cold. This book could easily be followed with a sequel and I would be eager to read it. A short paperback of 180 pages, the imagery left in your head after reading it seems more powerful than a few ounces of paper could produce. And I guarantee you, after reading this book, the next time you see a vanilla bean, you will raise it to your nose and smell it, and feel it with your fingers, and remember the flowers of the Dinh Ba Forest.
 
 


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