Constance Alexander: In Country uses fiction and fact to make a connection between past, present

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The first page of Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel, “In Country,” was my informal orientation to Kentucky.

Samantha Hughes, the main character, was en route from the Bluegrass State to Washington DC with her grandmother and her Uncle Emmett to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Five lines down from the beginning, the word “Mamaw” jumped off the page. Then a few paragraphs down, Stuckey’s and Country Kitchen popped up.

“Mamaw” was a term I’d never heard before, and Stuckey’s – with its similarity to the word “sticky” — didn’t sound like a blue ribbon restaurant. Not to point too fine a point on it, Country Kitchen sounded like the southern equivalent to the warning, “Never eat at a place called Mom’s.”

But then on page 9, Bruce Springsteen, a Jersey boy, showed up. Murray State University got a mention too, and that got me hooked because I read the novel in 1987, right before I got married and moved to Kentucky.

Mason had already been recognized as a noted writer in 1982. Her first book, “Shiloh and Other Stories,” earned the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award, winning kudos from the literati including  Raymond Carver who declared, “These stories will last.”

Carver was absolutely right, and not just about ”Shiloh.”

“In Country” weaves back and forth between the past and the 1980’s present to reveal the ongoing impact of the Vietnam war. References to popular culture abound. Snippets from “M.A.S.H.” episodes and lyrics from the Rolling Stones are interspersed with mentions of the Vietcong and Agent Orange, to cite just a few.

“In Country” is set in Hopewell, a small Kentucky town that bears resemblance to Mayfield, where Bobbie Ann Mason grew up. Samantha — Sam for short — works the counter at Burger Boy, and her boyfriend used to be a bag boy at Kroger’s. Emmett is a regular with other vets who gather every morning at McDonalds, and the best shopping is in Paducah, which boasts its own Penney’s and K Mart.

This past June, teaching Humanities in the Commonwealth Honors Academy (CHA) at Murray State University, I had the opportunity to introduce 17 academically talented teens to “In Country.” I chose the novel because it explores the impact of wars on those who serve and those who wait for them at home. Moreover, the main character was just 18, much like Academy participants.

All my young students had learned something about Vietnam in U.S. History, and many had grandparents who had fought in the war. “In Country” provided a unique viewpoint, however, because Sam’s father had died in Vietnam before she was born.

As she approached the same age that marked her father’s death, she became more curious about him. She wondered who he was, what he believed, what he’d hoped for. Simultaneously, she was increasingly aware of the war’s aftermath, through Agent Orange and the post-traumatic stress that plagued veterans like her Uncle Emmett.

The fall of Saigon was forty-two years ago and its veterans are grandparents now. Nevertheless, there is still much to learn, as many of their stories are still untold and still unfolding. Approximately 70 per cent of enlisted casualties hailed from the south and mid-west, many from small towns like the fictional Hopewell.   
 
Now is a good time to read, or re-read, “In Country.” If novels are not your style, you are in luck. “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part series produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres Sunday, Sept. 17, at 8/7c. on PBS. 

Ten years in the making, the series is described as “visceral and immersive,” with testimony from 80 diverse witnesses. It also includes rare and digitally re-mastered archival footage and photographs, and secret audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.

For more information about the series, go to www.pbs.org.

“In Country” is available at local libraries and can be purchased at bookstores and through Amazon. More information about the author is on www.bobbieannmason.net. Dr. Mason presents the 2017 Easley Lecture for Murray State University’s Department of History 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19, at the Curris Center Ballroom. Online information available at www.murraystate.edu.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at Calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit her website.

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