In his most recent book, On Blood Road, Steve Watkins takes readers on a tour of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, shown through the eyes of a young American who had lived a sheltered life of privilege prior to his capture by the North Vietnamese army. Readers follow Taylor Sorenson as he makes a long, difficult journey through a warzone and an even more difficult journey from childhood to adulthood, growing up more quickly than he could possibly have imagined.
Watkins has a gift for discerning the probable feelings and emotions of a teenager thrust into such a difficult situation and for communicating those to the reader in such a way that they sympathize with the character and his struggles. All of the characters – from the protagonist and his family, to soldiers, to others caught up in the war – are thoughtfully depicted, and even the most minor characters serve a purpose in the overall story or in setting the scene.
This book carefully and contemplatively explores such weighty topics as the horrors of war, the complexities of the conflict that caused the Vietnam war, and whether and to what extent those who protested the war were correct to do so. It does this while maintaining an air of respect for the American troops who fought in that war. This is a fine line to try to walk, and many writers who have tried to do so have failed to balance the two. It was refreshing to read a book that managed to convey the simple fact that war is bad while still depicting the participants in war as human beings with feelings similar to those of everyone else.
Overall, this book is at times enjoyable and at times emotionally difficult to read, but worth every bit of that difficulty. It contains many historical facts and cultural tidbits that will enlighten a reader about the Vietnam war and about Vietnam in general. The characters and plot are memorable, and the narrative moves along steadily in a way that keeps a reader’s attention right to the end.
This book was sent to Compass Book Ratings for review by Scholastic Press (A Scholastic Imprint)
Profanity/Language: 2 religious exclamations; 1 mild obscenity.
Note: In addition, a character uses “God” in prayers a few times (not tallied).
Violence/Gore: A few reports of assassination; residences are raided and people kidnapped, with gunfire heard but no graphic violence shown; characters are hit with bamboo rods a few times; character discovers a corpse, and characters are locked in a cage with it for some time; a few reports of past battles; a few reports of public massacres and executions; mention of body parts scattered everywhere; characters are forced to walk until their feet have blisters; characters are threatened with guns a few times; description of wounded people with details such as missing limbs, burns oozing puss, deep cuts, blood, and exposed organs; characters are badly beaten a few times; characters are killed by gunfire, with blood and gore described a few times (in the most intense of these, a character is cut in half by machine gun fire); report of a fight resulting in minor injury; amputated limbs are stacked in a pile until disposed of; a character dies of exhaustion; characters are treated in a hospital with broken bones and amputations shown; characters hit another with no serious injury a few times; a character is bound with a rope that cuts and chafes; possible torture methods are listed, but no details given; characters encounter a crashed vehicle with the occupant’s body impaled on a nearby limb; a character decapitates an animal bare-handed; a few reports of bombings; bombings are seen/heard from a distance a few times; report of a past massacre with civilians killed and forest destroyed; a few verbal threats; a character is killed in an explosion, splattering another character with gore; a few reports of characters tortured; a few animals are killed with blood and guts described; report of innocents killed by accident; description of a past battle and its results, including bodies floating by down a river, an injured man with arms barely attached; report of a character smothered; previous violence in the book is revisited several times; characters vomit blood a couple of times; characters have scars and past wounds; a character’s limb is amputated; report of a helpless character who has many bones broken; characters are mildly injured by the environment (cuts, rash from plants, etc.) a few times; animals have holes drilled in their skulls and are still alive; an animal dies in an accident then its body is mutilated; report of animal being beaten; remains of bombings are seen (destroyed property, corpses, severed limbs, badly injured survivors, some of who die); a character is badly injured by an animal, with bone exposed, bones broken, and an eye injured; grotesque wounds are described as bandages are changed; one child dies and another loses limbs in an explosion; a character bludgeons herself until she bleeds; recount of character with bloody stumps for hands; characters are shot at by guns; character considers ways to kill another; characters are killed in an accident, no details given; characters are shot and hit with shrapnel, with bone and gristle exposed; report of riots; discussion of whether to amputate a character’s limb.
Sex/Nudity:Characters dance a few times; a character gives another a flower; character talks about a girl he likes; characters flirt verbally a few times; poor children are naked (no sexual connotation); mention of women paid to encourage men to buy drinks at bars; characters kiss a few times, and once is a lingering kiss; teen character suggests that she and a teen boy should get to know each other better, with a physical connotation implied; mention of “fooling around”; adult asks teen if he wants to “make big fun” with local girls; a character is being stripped, but is allowed to keep his underwear; characters discuss whether they have significant others; discussion of cultural courting customs; a character holds another of the opposite gender comfortingly a couple of times; joke about someone having a date; character helps someone of the same gender remove clothing to go to the bathroom and replace it afterward (this is not sexual); characters caress each other comfortingly in areas not usually covered by a bathing suit; characters hug; a character considers brushing a girl’s hair from her cheek; mention that two characters are a couple; mention of character being in love with another; a character is forced to be naked due to his circumstances (not sexual).
Mature Subject Matter:
War (Vietnam); the draft; teenage partying; conscientious objection; poverty; kidnapping; prisoners of war; torture; death (friend, loved one); communism and its problems; shoplifting; war injuries; PTSD.
Alcohol / Drug Use:
Adults smoke cigarettes, pipes, and cigars; children sell cigarettes; mention of women paid to encourage men to buy drinks at bars; adult drinks a nightcap; a character chews tobacco; chemical warfare/deforestation; morphine is used medically; adults drink a fermented rice drink.