By Dan L. Walker, Alaska Northwest Books, 204 pages, 2021. $12.99
“We called it battle fatigue,” the mother of the primary characters in Dan Walker’s new book “Back Home” says midway through the novel, about her son, physically home from Vietnam, but not psychologically returned. “Most people didn’t talk about it then.”
This line hits at one of the core issues in the divide that ripped America apart in the 1960s, a divide that still haunts our nation. A divide that is again being torn at in our present crisis.
“Back Home” is the sequel to Walker’s 2016 debut young adult novel, “Secondhand Summer,” the story of two boys and their widowed mother trying to steer their way though life in Anchorage in 1965, short on money and living on the wrong side of the tracks. Narrated by the younger brother, Sam Barger, it was almost wholly unique in Alaskan literature: a largely urban novel set in a state most Americans consider to be a wilderness. Yet most Alaskans live in urban settings. So it could be said that “Secondhand Summer,” for this reason alone, was an unusually authentic Alaskan novel.
“Back Home” follows a similar trajectory, although its climactic scenes in the final section take place on the Kenai Peninsula. But like so many Alaskans, the characters go there seeking escape from the city and world they live in. And since this is a novel, it’s a pyrrhic escape.
“Back Home” is set in 1968, and the timing of the novel’s release could not be better. 1968 was, prior to 2020, the last time our nation tore itself apart over a seemingly uncrossable divide. A divide that ran not just through the national discourse, but directly through families. A divide that spilled out onto the streets.
The book opens with Sam’s brother Joe swaggering off to Vietnam, ready to prove himself. In his absence, Sam, still in high school, comes to question the war itself after a social studies assignment forces him to confront a conflict that ran much deeper than just being a matter of America against communism. As he discovers the dreams of independence that overtook Vietnam in the 1950s and led to the war, he can no longer believe in America’s involvement in the war.
This is when Joe returns, discharged after being shot in action, physically struggling, and mentally shell-shocked. The war that he took a bullet for has divided his own family, as Sam finds himself in conflict with his mom over his increasing opposition to the war.
It’s in this scenario that Walker expertly explores how families live in the world at large, and how the ties that bind can be sorely tested by events far from home. It’s also about how those events could even reach into what was then a small frontier outpost, dividing communities as well.
On the surface, it’s the conflict one would expect from a story set in 1968. Sam, who never fit in at school, finds himself falling in with opponents of the war, in part because of a girl named Iris that he has fallen for. He grows his hair. He smokes pot. He holds a sign. If he’s a halfhearted activist becoming slowly more committed, Iris is all in, and for her, everything flows from there. Sam follows her into a silent protest at school, as well as a march in downtown Anchorage, unintentionally and briefly becoming the public face of antiwar activism in the city.
This puts him at odds with the administration in his school, with students who are gung-ho for the war, and with his family, where his mother sees his position as disrespectful of his brother’s sacrifice. For Sam, this also leads him into conflict with himself, as he tries to grasp what he believes, why he believes it, and where this places him relative to the world as he knows it. A world where sides are chosen and partisans harden into their stances, unwilling to even listen to each other.
Within the family is where whatever resolution might be found has to take place first. It comes from both sides. Sam might be drawn to Iris, but he cannot quite match her commitment to nonviolence, eventually and quite purposefully coming to blows with other students. Meanwhile, his mother and his brother, each for reasons far different from Sam’s or even from each other’s, are also beginning to question America’s overseas conflict.
It’s a murky realm where nothing is truly black and white, and where the resolution itself will be inconclusive, because that’s how real life is.
“Back Home” is something of an older young adult novel than “Secondhand Summer,” if there could be such a thing. But like that first book, it’s also one that adults will find much to identify with in. And in another period in our nation’s history where our conflicts with each other over existential issues feel like they might bring the nation to its end, it’s a reminder that America has walked this path before. And so has Alaska. And that it won’t come to a simple conclusion.
It doesn’t come to a simple conclusion for Sam and Joe. A long-promised moose hunting expedition takes a bad turn, and this is where the family ties will have to prove themselves stronger than the external forces pulling the brothers apart. The book ends with a realization of what matters most, but it also leaves the door very much open for Walker to continue his exploration of the Barger family. Because the answers aren’t easily found, and the solutions, tenuous at best, raise more questions.
Walker is one of those young adult novel authors writing for adults as well as kids. Intended or not, “Back Home” is a commentary on our times as well. It’s a reminder that battle fatigue comes from more than just warfare. It comes from living in a society at odds with itself. Maybe we should talk about it.