Friday 21 June 2013

Vietnam Diary

Vietnam Diary by Mark Wilson (Lothian/Hachette)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 9780734412744
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie

Mark Wilson is a noted Victorian author/illustrator of picture books for older children. I have also reviewed Wilson's My Mother's Eyes: The Story of a Boy Soldier (2009) and Angel of Kokoda (2010). The Last Tree (2006) won a Whitley Award in 2007.
Vietnam Diary poses the question many ask when Australian soldiers are sent to fight a war in a foreign country: Why should they go? The answer lies in individual beliefs, such as in the case of the story's two brothers, Leigh and Jason.
Both the boys' grandfather and father fought overseas, the former in the First World War, and the latter in Kokoda, PNG. When the Vietnam war came about, Leigh is dead certain he and his mates should not go, because it is not "our war". Jason, on the other hand, isn't so sure. What if everyone ran away from fighting overseas in the common cause for freedom? Would Australia be a different place if we hadn't fought at Gallipoli or Kokoda or Tobruk?
Many of Wilson's illustrations are nostalgic, depicting a boyhood of shared cricketing dreams. There is high excitement when Leigh and Jason attend their first MCG test match. Jason regards his match ticket as lucky and when he is conscripted, makes sure he tucks it into his wallet before he leaves for the Puckapunyal training camp.
Jason decides, after his training period is over, to join his mates and go to Vietnam even though, as a conscript, he could have refused. Leigh who had hoped to dissuade him from the start, has to accept that their opinions on war will remain divided.
Through Jason's diary, the reader learns that Jason does not hold anything against Leigh for his pacifist stance even though he has yet to receive a letter from him. When a letter finally arrives he keeps it aside until after his patrol duty that night, trying to overcome the Vietcong.
The battle of Long Tan in August 1966 is now a part of history. Jason never got to read his brother's letter, but if Leigh read his younger brother's diary, he might have also been surprised. The Afterword is heartwarming, if sad.
Vietnam Diary is a sensitive picture book whose words and images give moving insights into the conflicting emotions and challenges faced by young soldiers at war.

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