Because I grew to maturity during the Viet Nam conflict and because many of my male friends at the time were impacted by decisions about the draft, I’ve always been drawn to literary portrayals of that era. Until now, Tim O’Brien’s 1990 novel, The Things They Carried, was my first recommendation to anyone who wanted to understand the subtle complexities of what Viet Nam meant to those most affected by the war. Now I can add Benjamin Alire Saenz’s 2008 novel, Names on a Map, to my list of favorites.
Unlike The Things They Carried, which takes place in-country, Names on a Map is set in El Paso. Occasionally a brief chapter will follow a character to boot camp and or on to Viet Nam, but most of the events in Saenz’s novel happen far from military action. Instead, Saenz explores two key components: cultural expectations and familial angst. The distant war seems to have little to do with Texas, but suddenly the Espejo family is caught in its web. When Gustavo receives his draft notice, his parents react in predictable ways. His father assumes his son will serve, while his mother expresses strong reservations. Gustavo’s twin, Xochil, is conflicted, too. Her patriotic Anglo boyfriend has just enlisted. Now her brother is conflicted, and hesitating about answering the military’s call. Where, in fact, might a man’s (and a woman’s) duty lie?
How Xochil and Gustavo negotiate these tensions and choose their own futures are the foundations of this extremely astute narrative. While the characters and their motivations may sound obvious and even trite, their heartfelt complexities are revealed with genuine insight and sensitivity. At the same time they are agonizing over their decisions, their Mexican heritage is also driving the story lines. An earlier generation of Espejos fled Mexico during the Mexican revolution. Some family members still revere bravery in conflict, but others are utterly unpersuaded about the value of giving up one’s life for one’s country. Questions of heritage arise, too. Crossing and re-crossing the Santa Fe Bridge into Mexico and back into the United States, Gustavo struggles with his loyalties, and with his conscience.
Reading this novel, I felt myself drifting backward in time, remembering conversations and debates and frustrations and decisions made in the late 1960s. Names on a Map genuinely recaptures what I remember of that distant past. My friends were pondering Canada, not Mexico, but the trauma felt was much the same. For me, at least, this Mexican-American author has done a stunning job of portraying those days and months of confusion, dismay, and distrust.
In a series of reflections on “Why I Wrote Names on the Map,” Saenz articulates his own struggles to understand the political and personal implications of Viet Nam. When another president from Texas followed a predecessor’s footsteps and took the nation into another foreign country, Iraq, Saenz felt compelled to express his own rebellion “against the repetition of history.” He writes, “My novel is an intimate tragedy that mirrors the tragedy of a nation. In the face of this tragedy, thousands of people’s actions were heroic. I wanted to capture that tragedy and those moments of anonymous, personal heroism.” In the pages of Names on the Map, Saenz more than succeeds. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Benjamin Alire Saenz: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe; Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club; Last Night I Sang for the Monster; He Forgot to Say Goodbye; The Dog Who Loved Tortillas; Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood; The Book of What Remains; A Gift From Papa Diego; Carry Me Like Water; A Perfect Light; A Perfect Season For Dreaming; Dreaming the End of the War; Flowers for the Broken; The House of Forgetting; Elegies in Blue (Poems); Grandma Fina and Her Wonderful Umbrellas; Dark and Perfect Angels (Poems); Calendar of Dust.