In Memoriam: The Delicate Tread of Remembrance in Two Literary Memorials

Updated on June 24, 2019
Elyse Thomas profile image

Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.

An event that touched the lives of so many people is one that warrants extra delicacy in the creation of the memorial. This certainly proved true for the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, the controversy over which ranged from its design to its designer. Many factors must be taken into account in the creation of a memorial, such as those affected by the person or event, and how the event or person is being portrayed in the memorial in order to make a statement that is respectful and honest to all involved. These same factors also apply to memorials of a different medium, such as literature. Walter Dean Myers’ Sunrise over Fallujah and Lesléa Newman’s October Mourning are two examples of this.

The Greater Purpose

Sunrise over Fallujah commemorates a few different things. First of all, it is a novel that educates the reader a little bit about what it was like to take part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This operation, started in 2003, was launched primarily to take down the government established by Saddam Hussein and eliminate weapons of mass destruction and terrorism (Dale 2). This novel memorializes this cause, as well as the U.S.’s attempt at keeping the peace overseas, as Birdy’s actual unit was in Civilian Affairs. “What this war is going to be about—and we’re still not positive it’s going to happen—is regime change and destroying the Iraqi’s chemical and any nuclear weapons we find. It’s not about making the people suffer and it’s up to us to let them know that” (Myers 20). This primary objective for the war was established very early on in the novel, creating a positive feeling of organization, purpose and humanity. The reader comes to feel that the military was in Iraq solely for good, and intended to carry out their mission with honor and consideration for the futures of the Iraqi people. “If we just go in and take out their weapons of mass destruction and their regime, then we’re just tough guys. But if we go in there and take out their desire to fight us and help them build their own democracy, then we’re heroes” (40). This is consistent with the idea of a memorial, which functions to laud a greater cause.

Along with the original intention behind the Operation, Walter Dean Myers also paints a picture of the people carrying it out. “Uncle Richie, I felt like crap after 9-11 and I wanted to do something, to stand up for my country” (2). Here, Birdy establishes his reason for enlisting in the army in the first place, which is a sincere desire to defend his home. Throughout the book, through his actions and reflections, he shows himself to be a compassionate character devoted to the well-being of others, such as when he asks his mother to send some dolls for the Iraqi girls to play with. “They don’t have to be expensive. We have little trucks and things for the boys and the girls don’t mind them but…” (180). The other characters, too, such as Jonesy, show the integrity, bravery, positivity and other characteristics that come together to create an image that is more indicative to the caliber of soldier that would be portrayed in a memorial. “Jonesy had grabbed the child around his chest and was covering his body with his own” (270). Here Jonesy dies protecting a child, showing bravery and sacrifice in the face of danger. It is stories like his that are remembered and honored in memorials. Walter Dean Myers treats these characters with honor and compassion, showing their humanity in an environment where that sense can be very easily lost. As the overall picture of the American soldier is positive, this aspect of the book is congruent with the classic ideal of a memorial, by creating an affirmative image of the American soldier.

The Cost

The novel, at the very beginning, remembers and honors the intention behind the operation, which was a simplistic desire to ensure the safety of those at home and abroad. This is synonymous with many other memorials, including the one commemorating Vietnam. The Vietnam memorial preserves and honors the purity of the goal, and the bravery of those who worked toward it, but, perhaps out of respect for their memories, not touch upon the messier sides of the event, where morality tends to get hazy. In this way, Walter Dean Myers deviates from what usually defines a memorial by diving headfirst into situations where the purity of the operation turns very muddy. The first example of this is when the unit does a house search of an area called An Nasiriyah, after three Americans had recently been taken hostage. Despite the reason for their mission, the reader quickly feels sympathy for the Iraqis. When one of the sergeants finds a grenade launcher, a very heart-wrenching scene unfolds quickly. “Another infantry guy came in and they began tearing the place apart looking for more weapons. The sergeant told us to shoot the kid if he moved” (54). Though there was reason to suspect that the occupants of the house were involved in an opposition of some sort, shooting children has never been what one would expect from a hero. Even when a sniper starts trying to take the unit out as they are escorting the young suspect from his home, the reader’s compassion remains with the boy, especially as he is shot down as he tries to run. “The grandmother ran from the building. She looked heavier than she had in the apartment. Her mouth was open, a black hole in her gray, lined face. Her lips moved but there was no sound. She gestured toward the boy, took a tentative step to him, then stumbled forward and fell on her knees” (56). The anguish surrounding this whole scene is brutal. Though the soldier’s actions were consistent with the intent of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as they were scouring the area for weapons and evidence of terrorism, the acts themselves seem far from the great cause and ideals that they were being committed for. This contrast occurs many times throughout the novel; often including heartbreaking scenes involving desperate Iraqi’s and hurt children. On one occasion, the unit learns of guerilla fighters, the Fedayeen, who forced children to shoot guns at passing convoys, resulting in their own slaughter. “Seeing the wounded kids made me feel like crap. This wasn’t what the whole thing was supposed to be about. It wasn’t what I wanted in my life, but I knew I didn’t have a choice” (115). Here, Birdy, not for the first time, questions the things they are being asked to do. The objective of the Operation still sounds honorable, but that honor is lost in the midst of the horrible and questionable things done to attain it.

These disturbing details depart from the usual concept of a memorial. The Vietnam War memorial, for example, primarily just lists the names of those who gave their lives in service to the country. It does not, however, list what those people had to do for the purpose of protecting their country. The details are not as clean as the overall objective and, out of respect to those veterans and their families; the memorial remembers and honors those people for fighting for that idea, as opposed to for the fighting, which could cast a pall over their sacrifice. Memorials do not shy away from these ugly details, per se, but any bloodshed mentioned is attributed as a sacrifice given to the glory of the cause. Memorials are not generally negative or cynical to the cause or the people they commemorate. Walter Dean Myers risks offending or alienating those involved in this conflict in his novel by commemorating a side of the war that most would rather forget. As a memorial, this would meet with controversy, as it raises more questions than it does preserve an ideal. The novel seeks to educate the adolescent reader on the complexity of this time, but not to remember it with pride as a memorial would. Overall, Sunrise over Fallujah honors the people, but not their actions, falling short of a memorial as a whole.

The Cost of Symbolism

October Mourning, being labeled as “A Song for Matthew Shepard,” slightly misrepresents itself. This collection of poems does not come together to remember, honor, or educate the public about Matthew Shepard. The reader is told nothing about him, other than small details, such as a Matthew being “sweet and on the small side” (Newman 4), and the kind of shoes he wore. Instead, Matthew Shepard becomes, in this work, a symbol of the victims of hate crimes. The work is specific to Shepard’s death, but it tells of a universal tragedy. October Mourning works as a certain type of memorial, but it does not work as a memorial to Matthew Shepard explicitly.

The reader is taken through sixty-eight different poems, in which the perspectives of quite a few different people, or things, affected by or involved in Matthew Shepard’s death are explored. Lesléa Newman takes a bit of a risk here by attempting to represent the event by using her own imagination to recreate it, as opposed to using the ideas of those whose perspectives she is taking. While she states clearly in the Introduction that “the poems are not an objective reporting of Matthew Shepard’s murder and its aftermath; rather they are my own personal interpretation of them” (xi), it is still representing this tragedy and those involved in a way that is not necessarily accurate. She takes on a lot of different persona’s that represent real people, such as the girlfriend of one of the killers. “I wish that night had never come / Oh, how could I have been so dumb” (47). Kristen Price is a real person, whose actual emotions may or may not match how Newman conveyed them. The adolescent reader has no way of knowing, giving them an automatically altered understanding of the event, as this text was written from a source that is not primary. The perspectives of the people she takes on are very at-risk of being misrepresented in this text, having not been consulted in its writing, which would make it very controversial if it were being considered as a memorial.

Aside from the individual perspectives themselves, Newman strives to recreate the general emotions surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death, which were, as described, overwhelming. “I called my son who lives in New York, San Francisco, L.A., Paris, Provincetown, Boston, Montreal, Tennessee / I called my son” (64). Here Newman conveys how far the story reached, and how deeply it touched those who heard it. She takes a more generalized approach here than writing from the perspective of a specific person, and in doing so, personally introduces the reader to a population that were outraged and saddened by what happened. “Two thin white tear tracks / one red swollen blood-caked face / this is someone’s child”(24), Newman certainly conveys a tone of anguish and disbelief that gives readers a taste of what the world was feeling over this story.

The fact that Matthew Shepard’s story reached far beyond Laramie is certainly true, as shown by the culmination of a reaction play called the Laramie Project, which has since been shown and performed all over the country. The Laramie Project is similar to October Mourning, as it shows the reaction and thoughts of specific people involved in the tragedy. The difference is that the creators of The Laramie Project actually went and interviewed these specific people a month after his murder (“Laramie Project”). The emotion conveyed in the play by those playing these individuals comes from a factual place, other than another person’s imagination. The Laramie Project functions more accurately as a memorial to the event, as a result, where October Mourning functions to preserve the general reactions and emotions surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death.

The fact that October Mourning memorializes the effects of hate crimes in general results in it being a grave reminder to young readers of the brutal effects of this sort of violence. Students reading these poems and feeling the emotion conveyed can certainly learn something about what damage hate can do. Therefore, October Mourning not only remembers the effect Matthew Shepard’s death had on the world, but it also serves as a lesson and a challenge to “think of one thing to do to help end homophobia and do it” (Newman 90). This challenge to activate and encourage compassion creates a different sort of memorial; one that is animate. It gives every reader a chance to act as a memorial to victims like Matthew Shepard by preventing something like this from ever happening again. In this way, the memorial October Mourning provides is one rooted in education and activism.

Technically speaking, both works engage the reader in a personal way. In Sunrise over Fallujah, the main character, Birdy, tells his story in first person, and does not hesitate to share his feelings with the reader. Birdy also sends regular letters home to his family, which gives the reader insight into Birdy’s personal life, and also allows them to take on the role of a family member reading the letter at home. An adolescent reader would therefore be much more personally engaged in the narrative, offering them an individual perspective on this piece of history, and an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes. October Mourning is also written in a way that offers a lot of different perspectives to look from. It differs; however, in that the perspectives are more reactionary than sequential, which can be a bit disorienting for a reader that is unaware of the story. Newman does fill in the gaps a little with occasional epigraphs that are actual quotes from those involved. It’s a little like a newspaper clipping, so that the reader can react to what was said surrounding this death as though they were one of the thousands of people throughout the country and beyond that were following this story as it happened. So, along with the individual perspectives that Lesléa Newman attempts to provide the reader, there is also a unique, global perspective.

Sunrise over Fallujah and October Mourning both cover subjects that are highly emotionally charged. Walter Dean Myers offered a direct and detailed account of Operation Iraqi Freedom that both lauded the intent and those who served, yet highlighted questionable situations that could offend those invested in this cause as a memorial. October Mourning offered some perspectives that were not necessarily genuine, yet conveyed the emotion of a tragic event in a way meant to motivate others to remember Matthew Shepard in their actions, creating a living memorial. By personally investing the reader in each piece, both authors educate their audience on each piece of history and enable them to live through it in their readings.

Works Cited

· Dale, Catherine. United States. Congressional Research Service. Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategies, Approaches, Results, and Issues for Congress. 2009. Web.

· Myers, Walter Dean. Sunrise Over Fallujah. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2008. Print.

· Newman, Lesléa. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. 1st ed. Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2012. Print.

· "About the Project." The Laramie Project. Tectonic Theater Project, n.d. Web. 4 Nov 2012. <http://www.laramieproject.org/>

Questions & Answers

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      • Lorna Lamon profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        2 months ago

        Excellent reviews with insightful explanations.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 months ago from UK

        This is a great double review. You give an interesting commentary of both.

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