Death Coming Up the Hill
Genre: Historical Fiction, Novel-in-Verse
Ashe is a high school junior, but he isn’t really looking forward to the future. It’s 1968 and the United States is entrenched in the Vietnam War. He knows that even if he goes to college, it could still be going on by the time he graduates. He knows there’s a chance that he’ll end up having to fight.
But even though he doesn’t believe in the reasons for the Vietnam War, Ashe is used to the fighting going on at home. His parents, he realized when he was six years old, have never loved each other. He knows that they’ve only stayed together because of him. Lately, though, the fighting just seems to have gotten worse, and it has no signs of getting any better anytime soon.
Told over the course of one tumultuous year, Death Coming up the Hill is the dedication to all of those lost fighting in Vietnam during the deadliest year of the war and a story about the lengths people will go to protect their families.
I thought the technical concept of Death Coming up the Hill was cool. Basically, Crowe took the number of men who died in Vietnam in the year 1968, which historical records say was 16,592, and divided that by seventeen, which he saw as a symbolic number in the story (Ashe’s age, birthdate, the number on his jersey, etc.). It divides into an even 972. During the prologue of the story, then, Ashe states that he’s going to dedicated one syllable of each poem to a soldier killed during 1968. In the author’s note Crowe details his thought process, how he eventually stumbled on the fact that haiku would get him where he wanted for the book and it allowed him to tell the story in a series of spare, seventeen-syllable poems.
And it works, mostly. If I wanted to be pedantic, I’d point out they’re actually senryuu, not haiku, since they don’t fit with the traditional Japanese themes or methods (there are far more rules to haiku than “three lines, 5-7-5 for seventeen syllables, but senryuu is a little less strict). Maybe I am a bit pedantic. I understand what Crowe was trying to get at, but an individual haiku or senryuu is supposed to be a self-contained unit, holding all the ideas it needs in one small package. The vast majority of Crowe’s poems leak into each other, creating a chain of stanzas. While that subtly exemplifies one of the book’s messages (“no man can exist alone”), it also means that Crowe really just made a whole bunch of stanzas using the two major rules of haiku to govern the length of each one. He could have just as easily smushed them all together or broken the lines and stanzas differently and still come out with 16,592 syllables.
Okay, enough poetry teacher for the moment.
The story was pretty good. The parallels between the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the “war” in Ashe’s household was written well. I wish there had been more to it—more description, more action, more development of character and theme. For example, Ashe’s relationship with his girlfriend, Angela, is important because it drives him to make his choice at the end of the book. However, most of the relationship that we see deals either with them discussing other characters or him saying he cares about her. We’re never really shown that he does, and there’s no real rhyme or reason why they got together in the first place. One chapter he thought she was pretty, and suddenly they were dating. I would’ve liked to see more of the how and why–particularly because theirs was basically the most stable relationship in the entire story.
Actually, that was a major issue I had with the entire thing. None of the characters actually changed. Angela was the kind, devoted, hippie girlfriend. Ashe’s father was the racist, scream-until-his-face-turns red, verbally abusive husband. Ashe’s mother was the peace-loving, love-seeking pacifist. Ashe was the teenager caught between many forces. Some might argue that Ashe changes by the end of the story, but deciding that there are things worth dying for isn’t really a change so much as a realization. He still hates fighting and war and all that. He does what he needs to do because the adults around him all behave like children.
Which I suppose brings me to the real conclusion I reached by the end of the book: I’m glad I’m living now, not fifty or sixty years ago. Well, at least in terms of having options. For example, Ashe’s parents marry because of him—his father gets his mother pregnant. In the 1950s “men did the right thing” and married their pregnant girlfriends. This is the catalyst for chaos in the house, and, though Ashe himself is mostly happy, he hates that they’ve only stayed together for him. Protip for all you parents out there: if you say you’re “staying together for the kids,” don’t. Take it from a child of divorce: the kids know, the kids can hear the screaming and feel the ice in the air. Split up and find happiness with another person. If this story took place even at the beginning of the war in Iraq, the parents probably would’ve found other spouses or thrown themselves into their work. Ashe would’ve grown up without the pettiness and shouting matches, and…well, the entire plot actually most likely would not have existed. I’m glad I live in a world where forcing yourself to stay in a place where you’re genuinely unhappy because of societal pressure isn’t a thing.
Death Coming Up the Hill takes the long way around in showing that there are other reasons why people might choose to join the military. It suffers from predictability issues and an overall flatness, but some of the racial and societal issues could lead to interesting discussions.
- Reluctant readers who like reading about war
- Students who like novels-in-verse
- Fans of The Wednesday Wars
- Death: frequent mentions of death
- Deceit: characters trick one another
- Drug Use: characters speculate on others’ recreational drug use
- Emotional Abuse: characters treat each other badly, deliberately trying to hurt their feelings
- Lying: characters lie to one another
- Other Illegal Activity: a character attempts to dodge the draft
- Prejudice: characters are prejudiced against others
- Shaming: characters attempt to shame others for their behavior
- Violence: discussions of wartime violence
- War: story revolves around the Vietnam War
- Weapon Use: discussion and references to weapon use
- Good vs. Evil
- Growing Up
- Right vs. Wrong
- Romantic Love
|Exploration of Conflict||2|
|Consideration of Themes||2|
|Suspension of Disbelief||2|
|Imagery and Description||1|
|Rhythm and Pace of Book||2|
|Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation)||2|