Title: Death Coming Up the Hill
Author: Chris Crowe
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Content Alert: Difficult subject matter (war and family dysfunction) but a clean read
The year is 1968 and the war in Vietnam provides a backdrop for the domestic struggle going on in Ashe’s home. His mom is a peacenik who buys him “Hell no, we won’t go” t-shirts, and his dad is a hawk who takes every word that drops from Walter Cronkite’s mouth as gospel truth until the moment Cronkite suggests that America might want to retreat from the war. As the year progresses and Ashe’s own views on the war start to solidify, events that are outside of his control threaten his future. This is a story about family, fear, love, growing up, and facing responsibility.
That’s a book you might want to read just based on the synopsis, right? Now, what if I told you the entire book is written as a series of haiku? There are 16,592 syllables inDeath Coming Up the Hill, one for each American killed in Vietnam in 1968. That might scare some readers, and if I’d known that was how the book was written before I got home with it, it might have scared me off. But these are not your average haiku. The book reads like a novel, and also like a beautiful poem. At one point, Crowe says that it’s what’s in the gaps that are important in Death Coming Up the Hill, and he does a great job telling the story while leaving gaps for us to fill in. I love literary fiction that experiments with form when it doesn’t detract with from the narrative, and this form works to enhance the narrative. The book is a remarkable achievement, one that captures what it feels to be seventeen in 1968, what it feels like to face a war, and what it feels like to be in a family that’s falling apart. All in all, this is a beautiful, startling, sad, and immensely readable book.