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TLC Review: Suddenly That Summer by Lori Handeland

Title: Suddenly That Summer

Author: Lori Handeland
Year published: 2023
Category: Adult fiction (historical)
Pages: 354 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2023 Google Reading map)USA (WI) and Vietnam

SummaryFor small-town Wisconsin siblings Billy and Jay Johnson, it’s a summer of change, confusion, and self-discovery.

Billy enlists in the army and is soon on his way to Vietnam. The letters and sketches he sends home tell the story of the crack-shot soldier he has become. ‘Slayer’ is a sniper the Vietcong both fear and loathe, an enemy they will never stop hunting. But the more violence Billy sees, the more he kills, the farther he drifts from who he thought he was––or at least who he thought he wanted to be. He draws strength from the friends he makes on his journey and the camaraderie he finds. Billy begins to wonder if he is there for the mission or the men or if, maybe, his mission has become these men.

Jay expects to enjoy the summer with her three lifelong friends, but the Four Musketeers have grown up and grown apart leaving Jay adrift and alone. Then she meets Paul, the dazzling new boy from California, whose anti-war views make her question if things are as cut and dried as she’s been taught. Shouldn’t she be on the same side of this war as her brother, who believes just as strongly in the right of the conflict as the protestors believe in the wrong of it? Torn, Jay struggles to make sense of her lifelong beliefs versus the turning cultural tide when surprising support comes from the friends she thought she’d lost.

Review: The first few pages of this book did not work for me. They felt stilted and cheesy. And then, wham! I was caught up in Jay and Billy's stories and cruised through this coming of age story quickly. The chapters alternate between Jay and Billy, showing their parallel lives as they drift further away from each other.

Jay's story is one that many seniors in high school experience: changing friendships; figuring out who you are and what you want (and what you believe); crushes, etc. I feel like the cover of this novel suggested that Jay's three girlfriends will figure large, and they do, but more as indicative of how Jay is changing and growing up. Through the friends Handeland does manage to bring up issues of dating, abuse, family expectations, and silences, which are all important and handled well, but they seem a bit secondary to Jay's coming into her own thinking about the war, communism, and what it means to be an American.

Billy's story, however, is only common for those who fought in Vietnam. He is supportive of the war when he enlists, hoping to prove himself a "real man" to his grandfather by fighting for his country. He makes friends with people vastly different from himself and experiences the horrors of jungle fighting against an enemy that is difficult to describe and rarely seen. It turns out he has a sixth sense when it comes to killing the enemy, a sense he is not comfortable with and the novel deals with drug and alcohol use in Vietnam, abuses/crimes committed by American soldiers, but also the hardships they endured, the fear, POW/MIAs, and the cammeraderie experienced by young men who have been through hell together.

The final chapter is a good epilogue and summation of what happens to each character, which I liked even though it is a bit pat. But, let's be honest, I like it when I know what happens to the characters so this isn't really a complaint. This novel does a great job of showing the culture and experiences of many different people during the late 1960s surrounding the Vietnam Conflict.

Challenges for which this counts:
  • Alphabet (author)--H
  • Literary Escapes--Wisconsin and Vietnam
  • Popsugar--self published

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