1968 was a momentous year for America – the Vietnam War, civil rights unrest, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Nxion is elected President – and we see it all through the eyes of 17-year old Ashe Taylor. Reflecting the conflict in Asia, his parents are also fighting – his activist mother and racist father met in college and only married when she became pregnant, and are now heading into the “minefield of divorce.” (There are a lot of battle metaphors).
Over the course of the year, Ashe’s clear, anguished awareness and understanding of his world, both close to home and beyond, grows, through his relationships with his hippie girlfriend, his History teacher and his mother.
Told in 976 haikus, one syllable for each of the 16,592 American soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1968, this is a short, sparse read where we are left “to fill in the gaps.” Though a clever intellectual exercise (or gimmick, if that’s the way you feel), the structure detracts from the flow of the novel making it choppy to read: It is written in whole sentences but arranged in the traditional 5/7/5 haiku format. And while we get to know Ashe, his parents and girlfriend, some significant events are given only a glancing reference.
I enjoyed Death more than I thought I would – Ashe is engaging,the story moves along at a great clip and I was moved by his family’s plight. I think that like Kwame Alexander’s Crossover (HMH, 2014), the brevity of the novel, and its subject matter, could give Death some reluctant reader appeal.