This is a review of my latest novel, The Birdhouse Man, along with an interview by the executive editor of the Mountain Times (https://bit.ly/3esx3Ys), Tom Mayer. I hope you will find it informative and entertaining:
A novel Vietnam War story grounded in the mountains of North
Carolina: ‘The Birdhouse Man’ by Rick DeStefanis
By Tom Mayer, email@example.com
Jun 19, 2020
‘The Birdhouse Man’ is Rick DeStefanis’s fifth novel in ‘The Vietnam War Series.’ Mississippi-based author Rick DeStefanis didn’t want to write just another war novel. So he didn’t. He instead wrote a book about Vietnam — actually a series of books — and what he calls “a different kind of story about war.” “The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story” is that — different. The fifth in the author’s “Vietnam War Series,” this standalone novel is about Vietnam, but it’s also about both the High Country of Western North Carolina and a broken college student.
What it’s really about though, is the healing power of love as an aging, retired App State history professor and veteran, Sam Walker, learns to trust his instincts one last time, opening the tragic memories he had kept sealed for five decades to a young co-ed, Claire Cunningham, working on her master’s thesis — the story of the Vietnam War from one soldier’s perspective. What follows in “The Birdhouse Man” is that perspective told in alternate periods, 1968 and today, as Sam is continuously drawn out by Claire’s honest searching for the story of a war told not through books, but living history.
Throughout the novel, DeStefanis, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, ably reveals why Sam is driven to release the “old memories that were better left to crumble away in the attic of his mind.” Why the 20-something student is so interested in Sam’s war becomes increasingly clear also as DeStefanis reveals Claire’s personal tragedies. The denouement is that, unknown to either, their individual battles will intertwine in a tangle of adversities generations apart from one another.
A tender story, if a “war adventure” can be tender while told with abject and graphic honesty, “The Birdhouse Man” achieves an “in-between time, not quite autumn but no longer summer,” as Sam sums up the relationship between a septuagenarian and his “adopted granddaughter.” Indeed, it is in that “in-between time” the whole of the story of the Vietnam War unfolds for one man and those he has touched throughout his life. Read this book and you’ll learn something. But better, read this book and you’ll feel something.
Speaking about his eighth novel overall, DeStefanis recently agreed to field a few questions from Mountain Times. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: “The Birdhouse Man” is the fifth in a series about the Vietnam War — a conflict you’ve said you didn’t engage in. Why did you choose this war to advance your story and series?
Rick DeStefanis: This began in 1970 when my tight-knit group of six friends at Fort Polk decided to volunteer for Airborne School after AIT (Advanced Infantry Training). Actually, I had already volunteered, but they joined me thinking that becoming paratroopers would be “cool.” Eighteen- and 19-year-olds think a lot of things are “cool.” I’ll leave it at that. When the six of us graduated at Fort Benning we received orders for airborne units in Vietnam, but
at the last moment, my orders were rescinded (along with a large number of others in that class). However, none of my friends’ orders were changed, and while I went to the 82nd at Fort Bragg, they went to the 101st and 173rd Airborne units in Vietnam. A year later, four of the five returned to the states and were assigned to the 82nd at Bragg. We reunited and spent our off-duty days the next year traveling on motorcycles up and down the East Coast and over into the Appalachian Mountains. When we sat around a campfire — and there were many — the stories would begin — stories they shared with almost no one else. When I asked if I could write about their experiences as non-fiction accounts they refused — I believe because they not only did not want to relive that year in Vietnam but also because they were humble warriors and knew some of our friends were never to return from that war. Years later when I went back to college, I decided to write these stories as fiction. Although it is a collection of novels, my Vietnam War Series is drawn from the experiences of those men and others I’ve known over the years.
TM: You show a masterful handling in detailing Sam’s tour of Vietnam. In addition to your firsthand knowledge as a paratrooper and the stories you shared with your fellow soldiers, what was the research like for this book? It must have been extensive as it appears you’ve taken great care in “getting it right.”
RD: I went through just about every type of combat infantry training program offered by the military at that time. The training cadre was made up entirely of Vietnam combat veterans. Everything they taught me and everything I did was geared toward going there. It may sound clichéd, but I was immersed in that culture of combat readiness and jungle warfare. I was also a “gofer” for a short time while working with a select group training some Vietnamese nationals. And, yes, in spite of this, I am meticulous with my research — reading not only numerous histories but also endless numbers of official after-action reports and personal accounts. Lastly, there are those men you may have read about in the “acknowledgments” for “The Birdhouse Man.” Tony Atwill and Bob Walker are two of them, one a decorated Special Forces officer, the other a decorated Army Ranger officer. They are only two of many combat veteran advisors who read my manuscripts and help me put the reader there with them in the jungles of Vietnam.
TM: The setting of the contemporary scenes, Boone and the High Country of North Carolina, also indicate some firsthand experience and knowledge of local history. Why choose Boone and Appalachian State University to illustrate this story?
RD: When I was with the 82nd my recon team parachuted in and participated in a training exercise up near Grandfather Mountain. It was also an area I visited with my buddies on some of our short road-trips during that time. In later years, my wife and I visited the area several times, including one time last fall while writing “The Birdhouse Man.” The region, Appalachian State, the people, all fit my story like a glove. I suppose I simply fell in love with the area, the people, and those beautiful Carolina hills.
TM: The adopted grandfather-granddaughter relationship between Sam and Claire is also beautiful, and touching and deftly written. I suspect some personal experience?
RD: I must say that I love all my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, and the traits Claire exhibits are taken from my experiences with them.
TM: Of all the takeaways from “The Birdhouse Man” — PTSD, loyalty, duty, familial relationships among them — what do you most hope readers will carry with them once they’ve finished the story?
RD: One thing: When you see that wrinkled old man wearing the “Vietnam Veteran” hat with the Combat Infantry Badge or Marine Combat Action Ribbon, remember he was once a very young boy who was given an M-16 not long after graduating high school and dropped into a war unlike any we as a nation have fought before or since. He saw men die, friends die, the enemy die and Vietnamese civilians die. He has seen the “dark side” of humanity and he saw at a young age his own mortality. And, when he came back home, there was no thanks, no ticker-tape parade, nothing but a thankless nation that judged him wrongly. There is much we can learn from that veteran and his experiences