Benjamin Alire Sáenz. NY: Harper Perennial, 2008.
ISBN: 9780061285691; ISBN 10: 0061285692
Younger readers today will have some difficulty understanding the center of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’ masterfully crafted novel, Names on a Map. At the center of the story is a person’s decision to support an unjust war. Do you go to war because your country is at war. If not, what does this make you. Is there really a choice, and if so, are the consequences of your decision worth the pain? Today’s fighting men and women all are volunteers. Names on the Map centers around the Draft and a decision some made to resist.
Still, parallels between the Vietnam era and the Bush Iraq era sit silently in the novel’s 426 pages. Younger readers can pick up the book without burning their fingers on the author’s antiwar intent. But it’s there. The family’s surname, Espejo, is the most obvious indication that what goes around comes around. Look at the issues of Vietnam and see reflected issues of Iraq. Look at the soldiers soaked by incessant rain and see reflected the kids frying in the Iraqi summer. Look in the mirror at the guy who died in Vietnam and see the ones being killed in Iraq. But Names on a Map is not a war novel. If you want Chicano war action read Alfredo Vea or Charlie Trujillo.
Much of the characters’ conflict will be fully accessible—immigrant nostalgia, second generation assimilation, third generation identity; patriotism, obligation, conscience; lust, sex, love; boy, man, girl, woman. It’s the Draft people won’t understand—but the characters, or perhaps Sáenz, don’t understand the Draft either. Gustavo, because he is a boy in 1967, and has chosen a job rather than college following high school, faces an experience that today’s kids will find incomprehensible on the visceral level that tears at Gustavo, his twin Xochil, and their contemporaries. Until 1970, if you weren’t in school, you were sure to be drafted into the military. With the increasing numbers of soldiers shipping out for Vietnam, and daily television images of flag-draped coffins coming home, the draft seemed a sure route to death and killing.
Most of the events in Names on a Map take place in September 1967. The United States has been fighting an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam for years. By now, people and families have chosen sides, pro-war / anti-war. Gustavo’s long hair and friends announces his opposition to the war, engendering a vicious personal antipathy from pro-war people like Xochil’s boyfriend, like Gustavo’s boss at the body shop, especially like that from Octavio, Gustavo’s father.
Gustavo is a twin. His sister, Xochil, has her own story, apart from her brother, but inescapably linked to Gustavo’s. She is in love with an anglo boy whose father hates Mexicans. Strike one. The boy wants to go to war. Strike two. The boy wants to marry Xochil and make her his property. Strike three. The boy believes that joining the Marines and going to war will make him a man and people like Gustavo who don’t are less than a man. Strike four. The boy and Gustavo used to be friends but now they are at each other’s throats. Strike five. Yet, Xochil agrees to make a man of the boy by spending the night in a hotel with him a few weeks before he reports for boot camp. Is this a home run or just a ball? Xochil’s is a complicated story that enriches the novel in contrasting the male experience with a woman’s. I was hoping Sáenz would leave Xochil as a Lysistrata character rather than give it up to the disagreeable boy whom even her mother doesn’t care for. But her decision ties up some life-long loose ends and provides the reader with a perplexing challenge to accept Xochil’s decision.
The generational schism is uniquely immigrant. These are middle class people. The Espejo family fled Mexico’s revolution with enough money to live comfortably on this side. When Lourdes, the mother, sides with Gustavo’s antiwar beliefs, the father Octavio calls her an ingrate to this country. Octavio’s insensitivity characterizes his relationship with the entire family, especially Gustavo. The irony of this family history in the face of Gustavo’s activism is lost on the father, however. He’s deeply disappointed in his son’s appearance and politics, in his unmanliness.
Names on a Map is engrossing reading with a major flaw. Sáenz and Gustavo reason that the Draft meant the inevitability of Vietnam. The author misleadingly underscores this fear by presenting the Marines in Vietnam chapters. But Marines, with few exceptions, were all volunteers. Draftees overwhelmingly went to the Army. The day I was drafted in January 1969, one fellow was drafted into the Marines. He sat on a stairwell with red-rimmed eyes as the rest of us walked up to be sworn in. That was the only time I was overjoyed to be going into the Army. I ended up doing thirteen months in the Republic of Korea.
Gustavo can just take his chances, but not because of what his father, his boss, his sister’s boyfriend think. Absent from Sáenz’ and Gustavo’s reasoning is the wider consequence of refusing induction. Gustavo thinks about a poem Xochil wrote for him, about a wolf chewing off its leg to escape a trap. He thinks, “What good is a wounded wolf who limps on three legs? What good is a man without a country? What good is a man with a country?” The author and character trap themselves in self-absorption. Another question, this one with an answer, goes, “If not me, who?” Some other name would be pulled onto the involuntary roster, someone perhaps less able than a me or a Gustavo to survive their tour of duty. But then, over 50,000 did not. Survive. 4000 plus in Iraq, dead. Thousands more wounded. And there is Sáenz' story of a Marine who loses his legs and is sent home. His buddies get a postcard, a suicide note, “I guess I didn’t make it.” And as it happened, Jimmy Carter pardoned all those who did what Gustavo is considering.
Readers who went through the 60s like Sáenz--who talked to a friend who was a Vietnam Marine--or went through the Draft as I, will take this novel deeply personally. You will be moved. I wish there was the same level of concern for our soldiers today as then. Names on a Map would have a far more powerful impact than it already gives. It’s a novel that everyone of military age should read to lead them to avoid mindless decisions taking them into uniform. If you go, go for the right reasons. It’s a novel families of military age children and siblings need to read to learn how to support their family when someone is thinking about volunteering. Let us hope some president-elect doesn’t reinstate the Draft and make the novel all the more relevant.
CSULA stages reading of Bless Me, Ultima
La Bloga received this from Sean J. Kearns, Director of Media Relations, Office of Public Affairs, California State University, Los Angeles, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032,
Dear members of La Bloga, Libreria Martinez, and other fans of “Bless Me, Ultima”:
You and your friends are invited this week to a special staged adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s classic story at Cal State L.A. It will be presented both Thursday, April 10, and Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m. And it is free.
Los Angeles, CA – “Bless Me, Ultima,” Rudolfo Anaya’s classic coming-of-age novel of a boy in post World War II New Mexico, will jump from the page to the stage in a free dramatic reading at Cal State L.A.’s Music Hall Thursday, April 10, and Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m. A discussion will follow.
Starring veteran television and film actress Alejandra Flores (“A Walk in the Clouds,” “Friends with Money”) as Ultima, the production is adapted and directed by Theresa Larkin, a theatre arts professor at Cal State L.A.
Seating, though free, is limited to 115 for each performance. To reserve seats or for other details, call (323) 449-4942.
Anaya, born in New Mexico in 1937, begins the story in the immediate wake of World War II, from which Antonio’s three older brothers return as changed young men. Anaya wrote it during the Vietnam War; and the novel’s explorations into how wars shape those who fight them resonates with the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Roberto Cantú, a professor of Chicano studies and English at Cal State L.A., conceived the idea for staging “Bless Me, Ultima” at the University, obtained the author’s permission, assembled a team, and coordinated the production. Intimately familiar with “Bless Me, Ultima,” he first reviewed it when it was published in 1972 and subsequently became close friends with Anaya, who has visited Cal State L.A. three times. Cantú has published and lectured extensively on its art, structure, and significance.
At Cal State L.A., the University Library will host a discussion group Wednesday, April 16, from noon to 1 p.m., in Library North, Room 530; and Cantú will address the narrative cycles in Anaya's novels in a free public lecture Thursday, April 17, at 6 p.m., in King Lecture Hall 2.
View the press release and more info here.
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