Written by: Walter Dean Myers
Publication Info: Published originally by Scholastic in 1988. Anniversary Edition published by Scholastic May 2008.
One Line: In 1967, 17-year-old Richie Perry, from Harlem, opts to join the army because he can’t afford college – and he ends up in Vietnam.
Brief Summary: Richie Perry, a smart teen who lives with his mom and younger brother in an apartment in Harlem, has plans to go to college and become a writer. When the time comes, however, he realizes he can’t afford college, and wants to be able to take care of his mom (who he considers a mess) and his younger brother. Perry joins the army, and he soon ends up in Vietnam. Although Perry has a medical profile because of a busted knee and is not supposed to be in combat, his medical profile has not “come down” yet, so he is set to join the 196th in Chu Lai. There are rumors that the war is going to end soon, and that they will all be shipped off to Hawaii – for all
Thoughts: Fallen Angels is a beautifully written and realistic portrayal of war. Unlike the war movies so often mentioned by Lobel, a soldier in Perry’s squad, it does not glorify war in any way, and, in fact, is structured in such a way that it seems like it actually is the documented experience of one soldier in Vietnam. Instead of a typical novel structure of a first act, second act, and third act, with a rise in tension leading to a climax and a denouement, it is a long plod, with tension and release throughout the book. The soldiers are always waiting, and then there are short (and terrible) bursts of activity, and the books is written in a way that reflects this. Myers does not wait long for a significant death to occur, but there is no inspiration and mobilization of forces in this death: it only awakens the soldiers, and the reader, to the fact that this is really a war, and there is a certain randomness about what will happen. The characters are realistic, and they speak in language that evokes both the times, teenagers in general, and men in a wartime situation.
The book’s themes of friendship, the harshness of war, and the loss of innocence are underscored throughout, as Perry begins to question what they are even doing there, realizes he is basically fighting for his friends and for his life, and wonders how he will fit into the world back home now that war as changed him. Lobel’s focus on the movies is a motif through the book, and he often talks about which character you would want to be. Lobel tries to think of everything as if it is a movie, and instructs Perry to do the same, but this strategy fails when Lobel kills a Vietnamese soldier at close range and falls apart. Age is also an important motif: it is highlighted that most of the soldiers are very, very young, and when the squad gets a leader who seems to be in his 40s, they almost don’t trust him automatically – possibly because he has chosen to do this for life. These boys are just beginning their lives; it is made very clear that most of them did not understand what they were getting into. “Fallen angels” refers to the name that a well-liked Lieutenant gives deceased soldiers, which is based on the name his father gave soldiers because they were so young: angel warriors. When one dies, he is a fallen angel. Race is also a motif running through the book: the new Seargent, Dongan, appears to be racist, and by this time, even those soldiers who seemed racist at the beginning (with the exception of Brunner) do not abide by this and focus instead on the safety of their friends.
It is, however, Myers’ focus on the realities of war that makes the book so important. There is nothing glamorous about this; these are just kids who barely have an idea of what they are doing being lead by people slightly older who also have little idea of what they are doing, and none of them really have any idea of what they are doing it for. When guns start shooting, they shoot back to try to save themselves. Perry often has thoughts that the North Vietnamese he sees close up look just as scared and young as he does. There are several friendly fire incidents, a terrible loss of a huge number of dog tags when the group decides to burn their comrades' bodies because they don’t have time to get them out (will these soldiers just be considered missing?), and instances of higher-ups putting the soldiers in harm’s way to gain traction in their careers. One of the characters, at one point, tells another that if they ever told people back home how it really was, no one would sign up for the next one. Indeed, that is the importance of a book like this, as it is something people need to think more about. In this book, war seems not only brutal, but stupid, and it is something we as a society always need to ask ourselves: is this important enough to send our youth – who can’t even legally drink or rent a car – to die for? And even if it is that important, is there another way?
Author Information: From the author, at http://walterdeanmyers.net/about/: “I was born on a Thursday, the 12th of August, 1937, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. My name at birth was Walter Milton Myers. I was about two years old when my mother died and then I was inexplicably given to Florence and Herbert Dean. I was raised in Harlem by Herbert, who was African-American and Florence, who was German and Native American and wonderful. They loved me very much and I grew to love Harlem.
As a child, my life revolved around my neighborhood and church. The neighborhood protected me and the church guided me. I resisted as much as I could. I was smart (all kids are smart) but didn’t do that well in school. I had a speech impediment and often found myself leading with my fists when teased.
I found solace in books. My mother read to me from a very young age. From my comfortable perch on her lap, I would watch as she moved her finger slowly across the page and I’d imagine the characters. Reading pushed me to discover worlds beyond my landscape, especially during dark times when my uncle was murdered and my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief.
I wrote well in high school and an English teacher (bless her!) recognized this and advised me to keep on writing no matter what happened to me. “It’s what you do,” she said. I ended up dropping out of high school (although now Stuyvesant High claims me as a graduate) and joined the army on my 17th birthday.
After the army, I was struggling through life—holding on just enough to survive. Remembering my high school teacher’s words, I began writing at night. I wrote short columns for a local tabloid and stories for men’s magazines.
A turning point for me was the discovery of a short story by James Baldwin about the black urban experience. It gave me permission to write about my own experiences. Somehow I always go back to the most turbulent periods of my own life. I write books for the troubled boy I once was, and for the boy who lives within me still. It’s what I do.”
From www.scholastic.com: “Walter Dean Myers is the critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of more than eighty books for children and young adults, including Sunrise Over Fallujah, Fallen Angels, Monster, Somewhere in the Darkness, Slam!, Jazz, and Harlem. Mr. Myers has received two Newbery Honors, five Coretta Scott King Awards, and the inaugural recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition, he was the winner of the first Michael L. Printz Award and the 1994 recipient of the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring an author for a "significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature." He is considered one of the preeminent writers for children.”