Rainbows. Flowers. Puppies and unicorns. These images are the opposite of what you'll encounter in the pages of Walter Dean Myers' acclaimed Vietnam War novel, Fallen Angels. So let's set the right mood here by telling you a sad story. Got your hankies? Let's go.
Before Myers became a giant among Young Adult authors, he was a kid, struggling in Harlem. He was poor and his home life was a mess, so he dropped out of high school in 1954 and joined the army. They sent him over to Vietnam, to train South Vietnamese soldiers. This was before the "Vietnam War" was a thing.
Myers' younger brother Thomas heard his war stories. Myers even showed him some bullets he brought back. Thomas looked up to his brother, so he joined the army and was sent to Vietnam.
He was killed on his first day in combat.
You can only imagine the tremendous guilt Myers must have felt. As he became a writer, he wrote two short stories about the war, but kept feeling like he had more he wanted to say:
"I joined the army on my seventeenth birthday, full of the romance of war after having read a lot of World War I British poetry and having seen a lot of post-World War II films. I thought the romantic presentations of war influenced my joining and my presentation of war to my younger siblings. My younger brother's death in Vietnam was both sobering and cause for reflection. In Fallen Angels I wanted to dispel the notion of war as either romantic or simplistically heroic."
If you've already cracked open Fallen Angels, you might have noticed the dedication on the front page: To my brother, Thomas Wayne "Sonny" Myers, whose dream of adding beauty to this world through his humanity and his art ended in Vietnam on May 7th, 1968.
Fallen Angels was published in 1988, twenty years after Sonny had died, but Walter wrote it for, and because of, his brother.
Not everyone has loved Myers' gritty, non-heroic depiction of Vietnam. The book is in the top 20 of the American Library Association's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1999-2000, mostly for the profanity.
Let's put it this way: the soldier characters in this book aren't about to win any politeness contests. They've got other things on their minds.
But Fallen Angels is also one of Time's 100 Best YA Books of All Time. And it won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1989—an award for outstanding African American stories for young people. So, sure, it's been banned, but it's also outstanding and important.
Fallen Angels is not for the faint of heart. But that's because it doesn't shy away from any part of the war: the gruesome violence, the depressing moments, the racism. That's because Walter Dean Myers doesn't want you walking away with any "romantic notions" of war. Instead, he gives you a real sense of what it was really like for an average soldier in Vietnam.
Fallen Angels is the kind of book that you forget is set in the past—at least, until you hit the occasional scene where the soldiers complain about hippies or marvel at the idea of an organ transplant. But these scenes are few and far between. Most of the time, the story feels modern, or even out of time.
Myers clearly created that feeling for his readers on purpose. The characters call everywhere but Vietnam "the World," with a capital W. It's as if while they're at war, they aren't even on this planet—or maybe not even alive at all. By the end, that's how the main character feels:
"We're all dead over here, Monaco," I said. "We're dead and just hoping that we come back to life when we get into the World again." (23.21)
Spooky, right? And sure, maybe you've heard the whole "war is hell" cliché before. But this book is not a cliché. It's vivid, immediate, and intense. And it shows the impact of war—any war—on individual people.
Think about it: there are soldiers returning to America now, from more recent conflicts and wars. And there are Vietnam veterans across our country who still need care, some of them homeless or sick. Maybe that's why this book doesn't feel like it's set in the past.
Why do these people need care or services? What exactly happened to them? Through the story of one low-level soldier, Fallen Angels sheds light on the experiences of American veterans today.
Confused about all the army terms? This site defines vocabulary from Fallen Angels. And it doesn't just say what each rank means—there are plenty of general words from the book, too.
Quick and Dirty
If you want a really short Vietnam War overview, head over here for some basic background.
Vietnam in the Movies
There's no movie version of Fallen Angels, which is too bad. But there are plenty of other movies about the Vietnam War. Here's a ranked list of what people think are the best ones out there.
Walter Dean Censored
Several of Walter Dean Myers' books have been banned (escándolo!). Find out which ones, and why.
The Photo That Changed Things
A photo of a naked child, Kim Phuc, running from a bombing and napalm attacked, brought about worldwide outrage about the Vietnam War. Here she is, all grown up and clothed, to tell you how she's doing now.
His Own Words
Author Walter Dean Myers talks about writing Fallen Angels. He talks about his brother too, so keep some tissues handy.
A Writer's Life
Get some background on the author himself with this video autobiography, complete with dapper black-and-white photographs.
The Home Front
If you want to understand the conversations about race in Fallen Angels, it helps to know what was going on back at home in the late '60s, when Fallen Angels takes place. This Crash Course video is all about what was going on in America in the 1960's. Don't worry, there's some fun hair in addition to the depressing war stuff.
How Does That Work Out, Stan?
Can't get enough of historical overviews? Here's one about how the Korean War and Vietnam War were connected. Get ready to be educated, and also slightly depressed.
Listen to the audio sample of the first chapter to get a taste—er, ear—of what the book sounds like out loud. Does Peewee sound like he does in your head?
It Ain't Me
Come from a rich enough family and you're probably safe at home, while folks who grew up poor, like Perry, Peewee, and Johnson, are the ones out there putting their lives on the line. That's the message "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a protest song about Vietnam from 1969.
Walter Dean Myers' son Christopher interviews his dad about their family and reading. Okay, there aren't that many secrets, but it's good knowledge for your noggin.
Where did Perry and Peewee land at first? And where exactly was "the boonies"? This map of Vietnam from the '60s can help you trace their route through the war.
The soldiers in Perry's platoon are constantly having to move through rice paddies. Here's what one of them actually looks like. See why Perry was nervous to cross through one of those? There's nowhere to take cover. Looks soggy, too.
News of the Day
See what all the army jargon about medevacs and treeline bombings looked like through these famous Vietnam War photos. Consider yourself warned: these aren't pretty, happy, sunshiney pictures.
Here's an older cover of Fallen Angels. Which cover, this one or the current one, do you think best captures the mood of the story?