Literary Review of “Fallen Angels”
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The novel, “Fallen Angels”, was written by Walter Dean Myers in 1988 in Jersey City, New Jersey. The writing is of a war fiction genre and also a coming-of-age story. The tale is told in a first person point of view through a fairly young African-American soldier fighting in the controversial Vietnam War. The story takes place in 1967 to 1968.
The novel begins in 1967 with Richie Perry; a seventeen year old, black, high-school graduate joining the army. He decides to join the army because his mother cannot afford to send him to college, although he is very smart, and he does not want to keep living in Harlem. Richie hurts his knee in a basketball accident while in basic training and is told he will never see combat because of his injury. The paperwork gets messed up and Perry is sent to Vietnam. His company is stationed near Chu Lai where there isn’t a lot of fighting. During the squad’s first outing, Richie’s friend Jenkins was killed by a landmine. He realizes how frightening war is but cannot come to find the words when sending letters home to explain the horror and shock of the war. Throughout the rest of the story, Richie can’t explain the war to himself and is unaware of what he and the rest of the soldiers are fighting for.
He encounters an egocentric captain, Stewart, whom is only concerned with a promotion which he will only get if his troop kills more enemies. This results in Richie’s squad being sent on unessential, dangerous missions. Richie has an internal battle with himself throughout the rest of the novel. He struggles to find his motives for joining the army. One day during a mission, Peewee and Richie hid in a hole overnight near an enemy infested river. They kill a man who checks in their hole and go back to the original drop site. They find a fellow comrade whom they look up to because of his bravery, Monaco, sitting petrified.
They boys realize, much to their dismay, that the area around themselves and Monaco is a trap and the Viet-Cong are hiding in the bushes surrounding the drop site to kill any remaining Americans and a return helicopter. The choppers arrive and Richie and Peewee commit a heroic act of opening fire on the enemy to save all of their fellow soldiers. The boys are wounded in their efforts and are sent to a hospital. The boys then return home as changed men. Richie realizes that being thrust back into society is going to be very hard, almost as much as surviving Vietnam, and he is a forever changed man.
Richie Perry is the main character in the novel and the story is told through his eyes. Richie had a very tough life in Harlem; his mother is an alcoholic who spends her meager income on booze and his father deserted the family years earlier. Although Richie’s chances of succeeding and coming out of Harlem a good person are low, he defies all odds and is a very bright student and does what is best for himself and his family, most particularly his brother Kenny. Richie and Kenny are dependent on each other with Richie acting as a father figure that Kenny never had. Because he cannot afford college, Richie escapes his problems and bad home life by joining the army. He cannot believe the atrociousness of the war and the absurdity of the whole conflict. At the end of the work, Richie is traumatized by the war and realizes that going home is only the beginning of his personal battle.
The loss of innocence is one of the predominate themes in the novel. The soldiers arrive in Vietnam as teenagers and have absolutely no clue as to what they’re getting themselves into. Peewee show’s his innocence by stating his three goals in life are to drink wine from a bottle with a cork in it, to smoke a cigar, and to have sex with a foreign woman ( ). When Jenkins is killed, Richie states that his grandmother is the only person he ever saw dead (15). He doesn’t realize that he will be seeing many, many more men die than anyone ever should. The troops have to quickly change from teenage jokesters to men virtually overnight. During combat, Richie asks “Where the hell is the popcorn machine?” (220) shows his immature personality. At the end of the novel, Richie realizes how difficult it will be returning to the every day normalcy of his old life. He knows this during the passage “A fat man complained that they didn’t have the wine he wanted. We were headed back to the world.” (263).
In Chapter 19, the symbolism of the dog tags is revealed in a new light. Many soldiers died in a particular battle and had to quickly leave the area because the North Vietnamese Army was hurriedly approaching. The soldiers were torn on what to do with the bodies. “Make sure you get all the tags!” Gearhart was saying (215). The tags were needed to let the families know about their son’s sacrifice and give them peace knowing they were in a better place. “He forgot the tags,” Gearhart said. “He left them in the hut.” (217). A soldier from Charlie Company unintentionally left all of the dog tags of the dead in a hut where they could not return to. “Not having a body in hand, not having the lifeless form to send with the flag, they would not acknowledge that there was a death at all” (217). The bodies had to be burned and destroyed because if the NVA saw them, they would mutilate the corpses. The dog tags were the last thing the families would have been given from their sons and would have to replace a body. Richie realizes that his fallen comrades won’t be recognized and their efforts and sacrifice would go unnoticed.
Fallen Angels sheds a new light on the Vietnam War. It shows the corrupt, selfish ways of the leaders, the horrifying face of man on man combat and the bond between soldiers. The novel depicts the bond between soldiers and the sad loss of adolescence. The book was easy to read and entertaining. It also showed the army’s incompetence when it came to training higher-ranking officials, for example the loss of paperwork resulting in Richie’s war service. Walter Myers did a fine job of creating a solid Vietnam War novel.