Names on a Map by Benjamin Alire Sáenz / ★★★★☆
One sentence summary: Gustavo Espejo, an eighteen year old in El Paso, Texas in 1967, has to make a choice on how to act when he is drafted into the Vietnam War.
What if I got used to killing? What if killing would become something normal to a heart like mine, a heart that that could lose its discipline so easily, a heart that could explode?
Genre: Historical Fiction
This is a slow, poetic book that searches for meaning in war and identity in one’s gender, one’s family, and one’s country. It’s about a Mexican American family during the Vietnam War and the individual struggles put on them by this war that they are largely disconnected from in different ways. It’s an extremely introspective book – the entire 400+ pages takes place over only a few days. It’s a different kind of war novel, focusing more on inner battles than the outer. It says a lot about the Vietnam War by rarely bringing us to the Vietnam within the story. It says a lot to about Mexico without bringing us to Mexico. I, personally, as a white person who’s lived her entire life in the northeast of America, have never really considered Mexico, Vietnam, and Texas as three places together that have stories that entangle with each other- which is completely ignorant. As books should, this book expanded the plane of history, of people, and of the world in my mind. And as someone who also has never been closely affected by war, I found this book very insightful and made me consider things I might not be inclined to when faced with the topic of war, violence, and politics in general.
As I said, this book is slow, but I really enjoyed it for its introspection and characters. It was not a happy book, and there were times that I did feel bored, but mainly that had to do with the fact that I preferred certain character POV’s over others. This book is not a thriller, and there is no physical action- but it’s a thinker.
This book is all about voices. The characters, most coming from a single family, are extremely diverse in their personalities and beliefs. The story focuses on the Espejos, a soldier in bootcamp, and a soldier in Vietnam itself. I loved that there was no single character that I agreed with completely, and no single character that I didn’t. The characters in this book really exemplified the differences in human perceptions of honor, weakness, of manhood, womanhood, goodness and badness and war- and that in the end, there is no right or wrong, but only our own choices. And in the political climate we live in today (and any period of history), it really made me think. This book was full of very strong characters.
Before this book, I don’t believe I’d ever read a book that has every kind of point of view- first, second, third limited, and third omniscient. This one does. Normally, I feel as if I might not be a fan of this, but this author really manages to pull it off. Since this is a book all about voices, I found it very appropriate and loved the symbolism of it. The writing is very beautiful and truthful, if a bit wordy at times. I enjoyed the poetic quality of it.
Was I satisfied?
Yeah! This book made me more aware of the larger world and a part of history I haven’t given as much time to as others, considering I love history so much. It was a bit too slow at times, but it was book full of very strong voices and I enjoyed reading it .