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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Names on a Map

America’s generation gap was exposed in the late 1960s to a degree that may never be reached again because, as the war in Viet Nam claimed more and more young lives, Americans found themselves politically at war with each other in a way that sometimes managed to split apart even families. Fathers fought sons, wives fought husbands, students fought teachers, the clergy fought the government, and young men fought themselves because duty to country so often conflicted with what was in their hearts. Even all of the political sniping associated with the war in Iraq has been unable to recreate that level of tension.

In Names on a Map, Benjamin Alire Saenz tells of the Espejo family, one of the thousands of families that did not manage to survive the Viet Nam War intact. Octavio Espejo, who was brought to the U.S. as a small boy when his parents fled the Mexican revolution, is a proud and honorable man. Now an insurance salesman in El Paso, Texas, and the father of three, Octavio considers himself to be a patriotic American. It is 1967 and his twins, Gustavo and Xochil, are finishing high school and making decisions about the rest of their lives.

The war in Viet Nam, particularly the draft he faces after high school, nags at Gustavo just as it does every boy his age. Some of his friends are eager to join the military after graduation, some are against the war and will refuse to serve, some will let the draft board decide their fate, and others, like Gustavo, are finding it difficult to decide what to do at all.

Gustavo knows that his father expects him to serve if called and that he will be proud to have a son fight for his adopted country. He knows that his mother is terrified at the thought of losing him in this war but that she will not try to influence his decision. He knows that his twin sister can hardly stand the thought of him leaving home and that his young brother, Charlie, loves him more than anything in the world. But he also knows that the ultimate decision is his. Should he allow himself to be drafted? Should he choose prison over induction into the military, or should he cross the border into Mexico and live a new life there, never to return to the United States?

Names on a Map consists of short, alternating sections in which Saenz allows each of his main characters to speak in a unique voice and from a personal point-of-view. He often describes the same scene through the eyes of three or four members of the Espejo family, allowing the reader to view all of the cracks and strong points of a family stretched to its breaking point.

Saenz sympathetically describes the motivations and emotions of those on both sides of the Viet Nam War debate and readers who lived through that era are certain to see themselves, their families and their friends in some of his characters. Those too young to have lived that part of American history, will come away with a better understanding of the period and will recognize the parallels to America’s present situation. Perhaps those on both sides of today’s debate would better understand each other if they were to read this one.

Rated at: 4.0

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