Reviewer: Truong Buu Lam: Dr. Lam earned his Doctorate in History from the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium many years ago. He has since taught history of Southeast Asia at several Colleges and Universities in Vietnam and the USA. He has authored a few works on Vietnamese history. He is now retired and the last affiliation was the University of Hawaii.
Author: Tom Gauthier
Publisher: Outskirts Press
On the whole, this book deserves the attention of all the people who like historical novels
Author: Tom Gauthier
Publisher: Outskirts Press
to Tom Gauthier, the author of this novel, the
term "historical/novel" which designates the
genre of the present book is an oxymoron, meaning
that the two words used in that expression are
contradictory (p.306). I disagree with the author because
he himself has demonstrated --unwittingly, no doubt-- in this work
that novels can relate accurately the past and, conversely, history
can easily be fictionalized.
Mead's Trek revives convincingly and well nigh accurately the period covering the end of World War II in Southeast Asia, particularly in what was known at that time as French Indochina. In this historical novel, agents of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S) and other American officials interacted with the Vichy French government of Indochina, the Japanese army of occupation, the Chinese officers of Chiang Kai Shek and the Viet Minh, a Vietnamese anti-fascist, anti-colonial and pro-independence movement fostered by the Communist Party of Indochina.
We learn that Mead's Trek originated during a meeting in Washington D.C. between President Roosevelt and his close friend William Donovan, the OSS Chief . They both knew well about Amos Mead as an agent who had accomplished a few feats against Nazi Germany. The aim of the present assignment is to
Amos Mead and his teamates started their trek out of Hickam Airfield, Hawaii en route to Southeast Asia or southern China, via Funifuti Atoll, Brisbane, Darwin, Australia, India. The assignm,ent was to defuse a plot allegedly concocted by the Vice President of the USA who had his own designs over the destiny of post war French Indochina, destiny that did not fully conform with what President Roosevelt had in mind for the same area. Their plane, unarmed, was shot down by Japanese military aircrafts; they bailed out and landed on the bank of the Irrawaddy river in Burma. By sheer coincidence, first they hooked up with members of the Burmese anti-fascist league, then with the Free Thai (Seri), and finally reached safely the OSS headquarters in Kunming, China. There they learnt that the Vice President was not the person who was behind the plot, but a certain spiritual "guru" of his, named Roerig whose description reminds us of Rasputin of the last Tsar of Russia.
Things move fast now. As they left Kunming and as soon as they crossed over to the Vietnamese territory, they were joined immediately by Vietnamese guides who, with dexterity and competence, led them to a hut in the middle of a small village. In the bare but clean abode, "it took a short, disorienting moment for the men to adjust to the dim light. As they did the form of a tiny man lying on a woven grass mat, propped on a gaily colored woven pillow that provided the only color in the room, became the center of their focus." They were in the presence of Ho Chi Minh, "a small brown man with the wisp of a beard on his wan chin", the leader of the Communist Party of Indochina, who, in spite of being sick with high fever, insisted on welcoming the American OSS men to Vietnam. Aided by Ho's organisation, the Americans were able to reach their ultimate goal of penetrating into the Palace of the Governor General of Indochina where, because of an un unexpected circumstance, they were about to be made prisoners by Japanese guards when American bombers blasted parts of the palace thereby freeing the prisoners-to-be. The novel ends on the tarmac of Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu: the Mead's trek participants came home, some in caskets, some on stretchers, none walking unaided.
An epilogue reminds us compellingly of the "historical fiction" nature of the book: in less than five pages, the author recounts the history of post World War II US-Vietnamese relations and shows how "ignorance, mistrust and misunderstanding, begun by President Truman, virtually ignored by President Eisenhower, and driven to heights of political insanity by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, finally spills out of the jungle bowels of the tiny counmtry, culminating in the needless deaths of over fifty eight thousands American soldiers, Marines, Airman (sic) and Sailors." (p. 310)
The book has two venial weaknesses. First of all, the narrative is crumbled into so many sub-chapters forcing the readers to be constantly shuffled from one sequence to another, from one place to somewhere else, therefore, making it difficult to follow the plot which, in any case, moves too slowly: the author wastes too much time in minute details about aircraft, airport, equipment, instead of trying to dwell deeper into the psychological mapping of the main characters.
The second weakness: the use of foreign languages. I do not know why authors who write narratives that involves peoples speaking different languages feel the need to pepper their text with sentences in the languages of their characters. In this case: French and Vietnamese. It leaves a bad impression when one encounters incorrect French sentences or ambiguous Vietnamese phrases. Such an unnecessary mistake after all, for an accurate English translation is provided each time by no other than the author himself right after the incorrect originals!
On the whole, this book deserves the attention of all the people who like historical novels. The author has done his homework concerning the events that occured in Southeast Asia toward the end of World War Two. He is familiar with all the popular movements existing in each of the countries his characters passed through and, especially for Vietnam, he shows plainly the particular circumstances that allowed him to draw the conclusions he did in his epilogue. All that detailed information is cleverly woven into a suspenseful adventure combined with a budding romance which titillates our mind and warms our heart.