CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 4. . . .September 28, 2012
Sixteen-year-old Nate Huffman has been estranged from his father since he left when Nate was five. Now the old man shows up to take him on a father-son trip—to Vietnam. Larry Huffman fought in the Vietnam War, and he wants to revisit the sites of his old battles. Nate is overwhelmed with culture shock and frustrated that his father has dragged him to this foreign place without explanation. But as they trek through the jungle to the place where Larry almost died, father and son begin to open up to one another. Larry’s last gift to his son is an understanding of the horrors he experienced that made him who he is.
Old Man is written in first person, and Nate’s voice is pitch-perfect. He is a likable, believable narrator, flippant and self-depreciating.
The relationship between Nate and Larry is tentative, difficult, and rewarding. No unrealistic sentiment: when either of them gets emotional, there is good cause, and the reader feels right along with them. Much of the book’s suspense—and also much of the humour— comes from watching Nate’s hostility and suspicion slowly be won over despite his father’s complete lack of communication.
The rest of the suspense is finding out the secret of what happened to Larry in the war. Nate is prepared somewhat by going to a museum and learning about the atrocities committed by both sides. Then there is a gripping scene on a jungle hillside where Larry recounts the terrifying ambush he barely survived. Even more emotionally fraught is the scene where Larry encounters the sister of a boy he killed and tries to apologize. Poulsen is able to convey the complexities of a terrible war by describing one man’s experiences and how they haunt him.
There is a lot of information about Saigon, Vietnam, and the war in this book, but it never once feels didactic. Everything is observed from the perspective of a 16-year-old boy: the reader sees and learns as Nate sees and learns.
Old Man is tightly written and fast-paced. It’s a book about relationships and about war, and it will appeal to teenage boys because the heavy themes are conveyed through Nate’s engaging and humorous voice.
Note: Although there is no explicit sex or violence, Old Man deals with both topics at a mature level. There is also a fair amount of swearing.
Kim Aippersbach, a writer and editor and mother of three, lives in Vancouver, BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.