Lynn: I graduated from college in 1970, so the Vietnam War and all the issues related to the conflict dominated the my late teens and twenties. It is only recently that books about this era are more prevalent for young readers, but I will admit to having had absolutely no interest in reading anything about the time. Experiencing it first-hand was enough for me. I say all this to be upfront. I actually groaned when I saw Steve Sheinkin’s new book, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. It was the last topic I wanted to read about—or so I thought. But Steve Sheinkin is an author I admire tremendously, so when I found myself on an airplane with a three-hour trip ahead, what could I do but take a deep breath and start reading?
I am very grateful that I did. As I have come to expect, Sheinkin writes intelligently with an authority backed by thorough research and careful attributions. He also writes with tremendous craftsmanship, utilizing structure with a style that creates a dramatic tension, presenting the factual material in a totally absorbing and compelling way. Sheinkin’s nonfiction often reads like a thriller and that is absolutely the case here. He hooks readers from the very beginning with a prologue describing Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt casing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, beginning their attempts to “destroy Daniel Ellsberg.”
The question is the same as it was then:
are these people heroes or villains?
It is, of course, a stunning story of ruthless ambition, soul-searching conscious, dirty tricks, and noble behavior. It poses questions we are still trying to answer today, more than 40 years later. As a whistle-blower, was Daniel Ellsberg a hero or a traitor to his country? It is through this very relevant lens that Sheinkin also presents the history of the Vietnam War and the four presidents and their administrations that were involved. With admirable clarity, Sheinkin takes readers through the convoluted trail of that disastrous conflict, the protest and resistance movement that arose, and the impact on this nation. He does it brilliantly.
Cindy: We have written blog posts about several of Sheinkin’s previous books and probably didn’t need to promote this one, but if we have any readers who have not read one of his books, let this be encouragement to do so. Many of his titles focus on a single incident, so I was intrigued by this book’s journey through multiple presidencies and the complicated nature of our involvement in Southeast Asia. It follows one man, Daniel Ellsberg, but students will meet many more principal characters, and they will get a solid introduction to the “conflict” in Vietnam. High school teachers should take note that Sheinkin’s epilogue compares Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers to Edward Snowden’s exposure of the National Security Agency’s monitoring of citizen phone and Internet records under the guise of national security. The question is the same as it was then: are these people heroes or villains?
Finishing Most Dangerous sent me to my overflowing to-be-read shelf to grab Chris Crowe’s novel Death Coming Up the Hill (2014), one of this year’s BFYA nominations. Crowe writes the novel in verse, haiku actually, and each syllable represents one dead American soldier of 1968, which totaled 16,592 in the year. Ashe Douglas is 17 and each week his history teacher posts the death toll for the week on the chalkboard. The country’s conflict is not the only one in Ashe’s house, his parents don’t see eye to eye on much, especially the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam or the state of civil rights in 1968. The use of haiku provides a thematic structure related to the number 17 that pops up throughout the novel and as I read each poem, I was aware that we had just lost 17 more lives. It was an effective format choice for that purpose alone. Pair these two books for a wealth of discussion topics in class, or use haiku to summarize other historical events, or simply promote these books with teens for high-interest reading with no curricular strings attached.