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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Lizzie’s War’: Vietnam Era Novel Has Relevance Today as Military Service Splits Up Families

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Hinton, WV  – It’s the summer of 1967 and Elizabeth O’Reilly is smack dab in the middle of the Detroit riots as Tim Farrington’s “Lizzie’s War” opens (HarperSanFrancisco, 400 pages, paperback, $14.95).
“Detroit is burning…” and her Ford Fairlane station wagon is nearly out of gas. It’s a classic cross-country road trip scene from the 1960s, with a frazzled mom visiting her parents in the Detroit suburbs with her four kids.
Captain Michael O’Reilly, USMC, has just left for a tour of duty in Vietnam and Lizzie O’Reilly has to fight her own home front war in this novel that touches every aspect of love, marriage, family, war and death. Too bad the title “War and Peace” is taken, because the Vietnam War was a strange one from the start, with Stateside life continuing its familiar – albeit distorted – path while a violent shooting war was taking place in a country where we had no strategic interests. Lizzie is a pre-“Desperate Housewife” Catholic woman who is once again pregnant as the novel opens.
The novel toggles back and forth between Mike’s war – very graphically described with the real uncensored language of Marines and other members of the military – and Lizzie’s in Virginia Beach, VA with Danny, Angus, Kathie and Deb-Deb, who channels herself as an otter, reading “An Otter’s Tale” for at least the fiftieth time.
When we first see Mike, he’s in Okinawa, overseeing the shipment of his best friend’s personal effects back to his widow in Virginia. Larry Petroski, a fellow Marine, had just been promoted to captain when he was blown to pieces in a war where even the rear was a dangerous place to be. Not that Mike, a gung-ho Marine who enlisted in the Corps at the age of 17 when the Korean War began, will be spending much time in the rear. His letters to his wife clearly try to ease her anxiety, but the TV coverage of the war where Mike is stationed has the opposite effect. She’s constantly dreading the visit that Maria had, with two Marines in a government sedan pulling up her driveway.
Lizzie clearly loves Mike, but she’s angry at him for leaving her with all the responsibilities of two parents, not to mention another child on the way. An aspiring and talented actress, Liz met and married him between wars, in the mid 1950s, so she was ill-prepared for his seeming eagerness for combat while she has to struggle for survival with her lively and sometimes out of control children.
The author’s father, he says in material accompanying the book, was an obvious role model for Mike O’Reilly. Farrington’s father, Major F.X. Farrington, USMC (ret.) and Mike O’Reilly are anything but “The Great Santini” Marine in Pat Conroy’s novel of the same name – and the 1979 movie starring Robert Duval – Tim Farrington cautions.
Tim Farrington was 10-11 in 1967-68, the time period of the novel. His counterpart in “Lizzie’s War” is Danny, the oldest of the O’Reilly children. The scene where Danny gets his first pair of eyeglasses – with clunky black Marine Corps frames, at his insistence – reminds me of the time I got my first pair at the same age. Suddenly everything is sharp and clear, where before it was blurred, Danny discovers. He doesn’t have to sit in the front row in school classes. He also gets a life lesson with his Daisy air rifle after his glasses improve his aim.
There’s a third story line in the novel that makes it even more richly drawn, centering on a Catholic priest in his mid 30s – about the same age as Mike and Liz – who is suffering from what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome resulting from his service as a Navy chaplain in Vietnam. Father Ezekiel Germaine was wounded in a firefight, where he cradled a dying Marine in his arms. SPOILER ALERT: This scene will tear you apart, so I won’t say anything more about it.
Father “Zeke” becomes a mentor to Danny, who is a newly minted altar boy. Like a lot of priests, Zeke uses alcohol to bring him some peace, which of course it doesn’t. As Zeke Germaine gets to know the O’Reilly family, he’s drawn to Lizzie. They soon share a drink or two, and open up to each other on a strictly platonic basis.
The children – Danny, Kathie, Angus and Deb-Deb – are especially well drawn. It’s obvious that Farrington has put a lot of effort into this book, his fourth novel, which has over-the-top, melodramatic scenes like the Detroit visit at the opening of the novel. As Lizzie stops for gas in the inner city, there’s a scene at the station that reminds me of a similar scene in a film from the late 1980s called “Miracle Mile,” set in Los Angeles.
Lizzie, Larry Petroski’s widow Maria and Linnell Williams, the mother of Kathie’s best friend, a black girl of her age named Temperance, are excellently realized people. There’s not a stereotyped character anywhere in this gem of a book. Well, maybe the theatre director in the scene where Lizzie auditions for a role in Synge’s “Riders to the Sea.” He’s a little stereotyped, but it’s a well-executed scene with just the right seasoning of humor.
With military families once again separated by a war/not war that bears no resemblance to World War II, “Lizzie’s War” has both relevance and resonance. It’s a mixture of pathos, comedy, tragedy and just about every other emotion in between. The people in the novel are real – if a little overwrought – and we care about them.
Publisher’s web site: www.harpercollins.com

(Originally published May 15, 2006)


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