Friday, October 17, 2008

Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
ISBN: 0545055768
This brilliant, exciting, and deeply sensitive book touches on the horrors of war, becoming a man, and the injustice of racial inequality. With heavy themes like this, it might sound like a boring downer, but Fallen Angels is from the "Teen" section of your local bookstore: full of action and easy to read, perfectly acceptable for adults who are looking for something light and amusing.
Richie, the story's hero, graduates from high school in 1967 Harlem, a bleak slum from which he has little chance of going to college and becoming a success. For this reason, he joins the army, which quickly sends him into the Vietnam War.
He finds himself under the command of Lt. Carroll, a competent and caring officer whose entire platoon was recently killed in spite of his best efforts to save them. Richie makes friends with four other boys in his unit: Peewee, Lobel, Johnson, and Brunner. They've all joined the army for their own reasons, and have very different reactions when they find themselves in heavy combat.
The author usually writes about disenfranchised American youth in the inner city, but captures the carnage and horror of jungle warfare perfectly. After a brief warning about taking malaria pills and avoiding VD from the local women, the mostly teenage company is conducting dangerous night raids and pulse-quickening reconnaissance missions.
Throughout his tour of duty, Richie contemplates some of the injustices about the Vietnam War. He quickly notices that squads of black soldiers are often given the most risky missions, inequality in the army the same as what he had experienced back in Harlem.
He also develops a striking empathy with the Vietnamese, even as he watches his own American friends being killed around him. It's very sad: he and his teammates make friends with a little Vietnamese girl when they first arrive, but soon they witness the killing of innocent children in a country they realize they've unrighteously invaded.
Most of Myers' books are marketed to teenage boys who don't normally like to read. He strikes a perfect balance: there's lots of violence (which boys generally love), but it doesn't get inappropriately gruesome or needlessly sadistic. 
It's an outstanding novel about the hardships of adult life, with all the excitement of war coupled with the bitter pang of racial and political injustice. Intricate social commentary is not usually an easy sale to teenagers, but Fallen Angels accomplishes it with grace and style. This book is the model of cool; a great choice for the kid in your life, or an adult looking for an easy to read thrill ride.

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