Study Guide

Fallen Angels Themes

By Walter Dean Myers

  • Warfare

    Here's a game: close your eyes, open the book to a random page, and point at a sentence. Does it fit the "warfare" theme? You win a prize. After all, Fallen Angels is a war book, and the characters aren't exactly in Vietnam for vacay.

    As a new soldier, Perry changes from a total civilian ready for some action to someone who is deeply mentally scarred by the war. And as readers, we take the journey with him.

    When it comes to describing combat, Myers doesn't hold back. From his sensory details of the physical realities of the Vietnam War—the exhaustion of wading through rice paddies, the tedium and discomfort of waiting in holes in the ground—to the emotional toll it takes, he describes everything. Perry is terrified constantly, and as the war goes on, he sometimes feels outside of his body. (In case you were curious, that's totally a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

    This all adds up to a picture of war that isn't shiny and heroic. More like horrible and personal. That's war for you.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How do different soldiers mask or show their fear, and what does that say about their personalities?
    2. Why do you think Myers wrote the scene in which American soldiers accidentally kill their own men?
    3. Why do the men in Perry's squad turn away from the soldier who is dying?
    4. Do you think Perry becomes another person (symbolically, not literally) by the end of the war?

    Chew on This

    The symptoms that Perry and his fellow soldiers experience demonstrate how war affects soldiers long-term, even when they're not in combat.

    Richard Perry manages to find a way to kill in combat, while still holding onto his own identity and humanity.

  • Poverty

    Here's the thing about the Vietnam War in this book: there aren't many rich dudes fighting in it. At least, not fighting in active combat, like Perry is. Most of the guys on the front lines are like Perry and Peewee: young men who joined the army because they needed money, or guys who were too poor to go to college and defer the draft.

    Perry also has his family to think about. For him, that's his mother and little brother. Providing for them is a big reason that he joins up.

    As far as wartime small talk, Perry and his fellow soldiers don't talk about money all the time, but it does come up sometimes, when they talk about their home lives. Mostly, Perry deals with his family's poverty privately, by sending his brother and Mom money whenever he can.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. What similarities to Perry and Peewee see between their communities and the Vietnamese villages they visit?
    2. What does Perry do to support his Mama and Kenny while he is in the army?
    3. What options would Perry have had if he hadn't joined the army?
    4. Why does the army appeal to Peewee? Do you agree with his reason for joining?

    Chew on This

    Perry and Peewee's shared poverty is part of what brings them together and keeps them close.

    Perry uses his poverty as an excuse for joining the army. His real reasons for joining are more complicated and subtle.

  • Prejudice

    What do you think when you think of the 1960's? Maybe hippies, peace signs, cute little mod outfits? How about complicated race relations? Anyone?

    The '60's were a time of social and political change on a lot of levels. Hey, even the hippies started growing their hair long to protest social conventions. And on a broader level, the 1960's saw a lot of people standing up for their rights and freedoms and demanding not to be discriminated against based on race, gender, sexuality, or other reasons. Most famously there was the civil rights movement, with marches to end segregation and ensure better protections for black citizens.

    The LGBT movement also took off in the 1960s, when gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons of a bar fought against a police force trying to arrest them. That's right—at that time, you could get arrested just for being openly gay in a bar.

    On a smaller scale, a lot of similar conflicts play out in the world of Perry's squad. Black and white men fight alongside each other, but they don't always get along. And then, you have Lobel—another outsider, desperately trying to prove that he isn't gay.

    Take all that, mix it up, and you're going to get some conflict.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Why does the guy with three rings want to swear a blood oath?
    2. Why does Peewee consider Monaco to be one of the black men in the platoon? Do you think Dongan views Monaco the same way?
    3. Why did Lobel think joining the army would convince his father that he isn't gay?
    4. How does the way the Vietnamese are talked about within the platoon compare to how the black men in the platoon are spoken to?

    Chew on This

    Lobel tries to ally himself with the black men in his platoon because he, too, feels like an outsider.

    Dongan ordering the black men to the ends of their squad formation is a type of segregation.

  • Visions of Vietnam

    If Yelp existed in the '60s, our main character Richard Perry would have given the entire country of Vietnam zero stars.

    You can't really blame him, though, because all of his Vietnam experiences are colored by the war. Either he's on the safe ground of the American base, which is hot and full of rats, or he's on a mission or on patrol, where he could in theory get killed at any moment.

    But even though Perry mentions the rain or the mud more than anything else in Vietnam, he still realizes that its people are a lot like him. Even though they are his enemy, he has more than a few moments of recognition—including when he kills a member of the Vietcong.

    Questions About Visions of Vietnam

    1. What is the function of water in the novel?
    2. What do the rice paddies symbolize? What does night symbolize?
    3. How does the way Perry thinks about the small hamlet villages change over the course of the story?
    4. How do the American soldiers think about the ARVN?

    Chew on This

    Perry's comparison of the hooch to native Vietnamese huts is a metaphor for how the American and the Vietnamese sides fought in the war.

    The description of the Vietnamese landscape after Perry and Peewee emerge from the hole reflects the triumph of their survival.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Plenty of the guys in Perry's platoon have plans for what they want to do after the war. Brew wants to be a preacher; Monaco's going to get married. Heartbreakingly, we learn after Carroll's death that he was planning to open a bookstore with his wife. We don't know what Simpson's planning on, but he's definitely counting down the days. Brunner probably has people back home he wants to get back to bullying. Everyone's got plans.

    Perry's a different story. He used to dream of being a philosopher or writer, but a not-so-helpful guidance counselor and the reality of his poverty didn't make that seem like a doable option. So he doesn't know what he wants to do next, which means he doesn't have anything to look forward to when he goes home.

    Don't get us wrong—he definitely still wants to go home. He just doesn't know who he'll even be when he gets there.

    Chew on This

    The wife, future child, and bookstore that Lieutenant Carroll had to look forward to helped him to be a better, more compassionate leader.

    The Vietnam War inspires Perry to want to do something more with his life.

  • Religion

    At the start of the book Perry hasn't gone to church in years, but as it goes on he starts praying, and eventually actually going to mass. And the amount of senseless death he encounters really begs the question: Why? Why now, of all times?

    Two words: desperation, comfort. Perry will do anything, including pray, to decrease his chances of getting killed. But also, like Father Santora convinces him, it makes him feel comforted to go to a religious service. Maybe worshipping with others reminds him that he isn't in the war alone: everyone else wants the same thing he does.

    And really, in a situation where he has almost no control over his life, anything Perry can do to improve it is a good thing.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How does Peewee feel about prayer and religion?
    2. How do Perry's feelings about religion change throughout the story?
    3. Why does Perry keep praying, even though he knows his enemies must pray too?
    4. Why did Lieutenant Carroll lose some of his connection to religion?

    Chew on This

    In Fallen Angels, the function of prayer changes from being a way to acknowledge the dead to an active way for the living to seek comfort.

    Father Santora's honesty about his own feelings and about the effectiveness of prayer is what ultimately convinces Perry to try religion.

  • Politics

    The Sixties and Seventies. On one side, you've got the hippies being all "make love, not war, man." And on the other side, you've got folks saying that the U.S. has a responsibility to stop the spread of Communism by fighting in South Vietnam. The backdrop of the war is those competing political views being fought out in the U.S.

    But on a smaller scale, Perry's platoon has its own set of complicated local politics, many of them having to do with rank. New sergeants and lieutenants faking overconfidence to establish their authority. Captain Stewart trying to maximize his platoon's body count so he can be promoted to Major.

    These politics are a big deal, because sometimes they mean risking the lives of the men in the platoon. In war, the consequences of a power trip are way too high.

    Questions About Politics

    1. How does Captain Stewart's quest for a promotion risk his soldiers' lives?
    2. Why does Brunner call antiwar Americans "faggots and Commies?"
    3. Why do Captain Stewart and the Vietnamese colonel fight over who should take the hill first?
    4. How might Captain Stewart's inflation of his kill numbers affect the larger war?

    Chew on This

    By forcing his men to take cover in a too-small trench, Gearhart's power trip causes Turner's death.

    Gearhart needs to fight with Simpson in order to establish his authority over the squad.

  • Friendship

    Friendship doesn't feel like a strong enough word for the relationship the men in Perry's platoon develop with each other. Brotherhood, maybe? These guys have survived together, saved each other's lives, comforted each other in what seems like a pretty hopeless situation. In a world full of danger, they need each other. That's beyond BFFs.

    But they're soldiers, so they don't make friendship bracelets about it. Most of the time, their bond is unspoken. But occasionally, they'll let themselves cry in front of each other, or they'll hold hands, because they're terrified and need some sort of comfort. For Perry, there's no one more important—in the war, anyway—than Peewee. Maybe they'll make the bracelets once they get home?

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What are some of the ways the guys in Perry's platoon show that they care about each other?
    2. List the men in Perry's platoon in order of how close Perry is to them.
    3. What do the men in Perry's platoon do to honor their friends who have died?
    4. Why doesn't Monaco say goodbye to Perry and Peewee in person?

    Chew on This

    Peewee is the reason why Perry survives the war—not just physically, but emotionally.

    Johnson keeps the platoon together by protecting the black men within it.