Chris Crowe. Death Coming Up the Hill. New York: Houghton, 2014. Print.
The publisher bills Death Coming Up the Hill as a young adult (YA) novel. Through the 1950s it would have been considered a poem, a long narrative poem or short epic like Evangeline or John Brown’s Body. But in today’s publishing world, big poems don’t sell, so Death Coming Up the Hill is called a novel.
Frankly, it does read like a novel. However, it is written in a kind of haiku form. Now, in “real” haiku, each three line poem stands on its own. In Death Coming Up the Hill the haiku form is there for syllable count only. Lines are enjambed—they run onto the next line and even the next stanza. So yes, read out loud, it is prose, not poetry. And also unlike haiku, the 976 stanzas tell a story.
The novel is set in 1968 and 1969 when the cultural changes that began in “the sixties” really took hold in the United States. The novel did bring back some memories. In June 1968 a presidential candidate, Sen Robert Kennedy, was killed by a radical Muslim. Cities were trying to heal after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when riots broke out. The plot is political.
As I write this, I remember the Tom Lehrer joke back then that because Robert Kennedy was a senator from New York that Massachusetts was the only state with three senators.
In the novel, Ashe Douglas is the seventeen year old only child of an unhappy marriage. Back in 1951, his parents had to get married. They did it out of duty, social expectations, and for the sake of their baby. His father is a stereotype. He comes across as a “dumb jock.” He is the patriot. He laughs when he hears a joke about Rev. King’s death.
Mrs. Douglas is the flower child. She was somewhat active in the Civil Rights movement and has become very active in the antiwar movement. The Douglas family symbolizes the country itself, divided. Both sides have a sense of duty to the country, but the question as the year goes on is can they abide each other?
Author Chris Crowe is a college professor, so he mostly takes the “politically correct” stand on Vietnam: Doves good, Hawks bad. Ashe does respect his father for what he did in the past—as a famous college athlete and for marrying his mother. But he sides with his mother, his history teacher, and his new girlfriend Angela on the Vietnam issue. (Boy, do I remember the radical history teachers I had in high school in the sixties!)
The novel hints that the United States was winning the war in 1968 but the news reports were negative. It illustrates Ho Chi Minh’s view that the war would be won or lost not in Vietnam but in the streets of America.
Although Ashe has found a very sweet girlfriend, there is a melancholy tone. Angela’s brother is MIA in Vietnam. Ashe’s parents are splitting up, finally, because his mother is pregnant and not by Mr. Douglas. This then completes the sixties retrospective by bringing in the so-called sexual revolution.
Here, I give the author credit. He is less p.c. here. Yes, we are meant to sympathize with the peace-loving Mrs. Douglas, but sexual immorality tears families apart. That is especially true if the family relationships are fragile to begin with.
I do not want to give too much of the short novel away, but the father of Ashe’s new sibling does not show up until near the end and then disappears. In the novel there is a reason for his disappearance, but today we see the sad fruits of the sexual revolution—fathers disappear. Young men do not take responsibility to the point where nearly half the births in our country are to single women. Where are the real men?
Let us just say that Ashe does what he can or thinks he can to “man up.”
The author explains why he chose the form of storytelling that he did. Haiku counts syllables. There are seventeen syllables in a haiku poem. The number seventeen appears throughout the story. Death Coming Up the Hill has exactly 976 stanzas or 16,592 syllables. 16,592 is the number of American men killed or MIA in Vietnam in 1968. One syllable for each dead American. The afterword, which might be worth reading as a foreword, explains this as well as some of the other things connected with the number seventeen.
Is the haiku thing a gimmick or a tour de force? I am not sure. It is clever. Death Coming Up the Hill is a reminder that the 1960s were divisive. Perhaps the United States was not as divided as in the 1860s, but it is sad what has happened in the country as a result: political correctness, family breakdown, utopian ideologies, and a loss of security that may be statistically imaginary but at times seems very real.