Book: Walter Dean Myers. Fallen Angels. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1988
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Realistic Fiction, War Fiction.
Audience: Grades 9-12 (and up)
Read-Aloud: Okay I’m tired now….
Summary: The story follows the story of Perry, an African American youth from Harlem who volunteers for the Army during the Vietnam War in order to find something to do with his life that he finds meaningful after his thought of getting into college fall through. Throughout the novel Perry meets with many other soldiers, some who come and some who go, but he forms the strongest bond with the members of his platoon; Peewee, Lobel, Monaco, Johnson, and Brunner. Throughout the novel he comes into contact with issues of race as his primarily black platoon is constantly given dangerous assignments that consistently result in Perry having to experience some of the most horrific scenes of warfare. He constantly struggles to find virtue in the war, and he still doesn’t find the answers he’s searching for as the novels ends with him journeying home.
Themes: The largest theme in this novel by far is that of warfare and all the other issues that come along with it. Throughout the novel Perry is constantly questioning whether what the United States is doing is right or wrong and where his ultimately fits into the war machine. He has to experience the hardships of battle and the inevitable deaths that come with it; teaching him first-hand about the enigma that is death and what it means for him in hostile lands. The war also teaches him about the best and worst that humanity has to offer and whether or not there is or isn’t a God and if there is one, why would he allow such a war to happen.
Another theme seen throughout the novel is that of race. Perry’s squad is time and time again thrown into some of the most dangerous positions because of their ethnic make-up and he doesn’t understand why. Their platoon is constantly insulted by other soldiers and racial infighting is common amongst the few white men in the squad who continually make racial slurs towards the black members. Even after fighting and dying at the hands of the Viet-Cong, the racial slurs and insults still occur with regularity back at base camp.
Connections: I would teach this novel as a primary text in a classroom and use it with information and other novels about the Korean/Vietnam/Cold War era. This novel would also be useful if one taught it in partnership with a history teacher at school in order to provide students with a more in-depth viewpoint of what the Vietnam War was like for those soldiers, especially black soldiers, who had to fight for their lives every day against the guerrilla tactics of the Viet-Cong deep in the jungles of Vietnam. I think that students would also enjoy other novels about youth in wartime, no matter what timeline it take place in. Again, one could set up the entire year of curriculum in partnership with a history teacher by providing war novels dealing with each era of history.
Reactions: I absolutely loved this novel. The style and detail that Dean puts into the novel is astounding, and the sheer graphic realism makes for an exciting and thought provoking experience. It’s a shame that this novel constantly finds itself on banned books lists, as it is so well written and such a great story that it should be a crime to deny anybody the ability to read it. The impact that the war has on all of the soldiers in this novel are profound and the issues that are raised and explored throughout are important for students to think about as some of them may someday find themselves in the armed forces or back at home watching former classmates fighting on the television.
Reception: WordPress blogger Joseph Lunievicz said that: “Before I read this book I thought The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, was the best book I’d read on the Vietnam War but this one tops it. It in no way glorifies war and it’s parallel to today’s wars in Iran and Iraq is frightening. The erosion of the soldier’s nerves as the story builds and they see more and more action, is handled well as is the insight into why we were at war then and what each character wanted out of being there. The action is visceral. The ending is haunting. This is not an easy read as the violence is realistic and explicit as is the language, but it is an important and cautionary one.
At GoodReads, one reviewer was of a differing opinion: “Fallen Angels is a quick read. Once I started rolling on it, I finished it in a few hours. The plotline is standard, though the fluctuation between mundane and boring to hellish and violent in the various scenes does a nice job of reflecting what I’ve been told about service in Vietnam. The book touches on some of the underlying issues of race in Vietnam, but I’d actually probably have preferred a little heavier exploration of the racial tensions. It’s definitely present and explored, but it doesn’t end up playing any sort of critical role in the storyline. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I just kept expecting it to play into the plot somehow (like with the squad fragging the racist Sgt).”