Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Phases: Shooting the Moon by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Why, I suddenly wondered, why was TJ sending me pictures of soldiers missing arms and legs?

Why was TJ sending me pictures?

Was he trying to scare me? Or was he just trying to tell me that war wasn't anything like the way we'd dreamed it, playing with our little green Army men under the trees?

It is the summer of 1969, and twelve-year-old Jamie Dexter decides to volunteer at the base PX. Between sessions of digging empty beer cans out from under the pool table and sweeping up peanut shells, she begins a summer-long gin rummy tournament with the PX director Private Hollister. Schooled in all things military and how to play serious gin by her father, the base commander known mostly as "the Colonel," Jamie idolizes her father and in turn her brother TJ, who has enlisted in the Army just out of high school.

Strangely, though, the Colonel seems not to be pleased with TJ's choice. "The Army way is the right way," has always been the family motto, and yet her father urges TJ to revoke his enlistment until the grace period expires and TJ is on his way to Vietnam as a medic. Then, as TJ's letters begin to come home, Jamie is disappointed that he writes only to her parents, talking only of the bad food and the beautiful scenery around his base at Bai Phu. To her he only sends rolls of undeveloped film. Still loyal to her brother, Jamie persuades a troubled Vietnam vet at the PX to teach her to develop the stream of film she continues to receive from her brother.

Jamie is confused by the scenes she sees as she works in the darkroom. Hootches, tired soldiers lying on the ground drinking beer, flowers, and many shots of the moon in different phases come first, but as the summer wears on, the images become darker and more disturbing--medivac copters, stark photos of the newly wounded, haggard, empty faces of exhausted men, fleeing civilians, and always more shots of the moon, sometimes a whole roll of nothing but the moon. As the summer matures, Jamie begins to see why her father wanted to keep her brother safe in college and realizes that for herself as well as for TJ, war has lost its shine and glamour forever.

When Private Hollister confides that he may soon be sent to Vietnam and fears the toll upon his mother if he too dies there like his older brother, Jamie goes to her father and begs him not to sign the orders which will send Hollister to the war zone. Her father says that saving one soldier means putting another in harm's way, and then, in a moment of personal revelation, quietly confesses that he himself had tried to keep TJ from the same fate.

Dowell's timely new coming-of-age novel, Shooting the Moon, is a straightforward depiction of the movement from childhood to maturity. Like a photo slowing gaining detail and focus in the developing solution, Jamie's world view moves from youthful dreams of glory to nuanced meaning in this novel which is a spare yet sharp black and white photograph of the time itself.

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