A Distinguished and Bestselling Historian and Vietnam Vet Revisits the Culture War that Raged around the Selection of Maya Lin's Design for the Vietnam Memorial
A Rift in the Earth tells the remarkable story of the ferocious "art war" that raged between 1979 and 1984 over what kind of memorial should be built to honor the men and women who died in the Vietnam War. The story intertwines art, politics, historical memory, patriotism, racism, and a fascinating set of characters, from those who fought in the conflict and those who resisted it to politicians at the highest level. At its center are two enduring figures: Maya Lin, a young, Asian-American architecture student at Yale whose abstract design won the international competition but triggered a fierce backlash among powerful figures; and Frederick Hart, an innovative sculptor of humble origins on the cusp of stardom.
James Reston, Jr., a veteran who lost a close friend in the war and has written incisively about the conflict's bitter aftermath, explores how the debate reignited passions around Vietnam long after the war's end and raised questions about how best to honor those who fought and sacrificed in an ill-advised war.
"The memorial appears as a rift in the earth, a long polished black stone wall, emerging from and receding into the earth." - Maya Lin
"I see the wall as a kind of ocean, a sea of sacrifice.... I place these figures upon the shore of that sea." - Frederick Hart
If you have any interest in history, wars back at home, humanity at its worst and best, you'll not want to miss A Rift in the Earth. Reston writes with great warmth and sensitivity about a troubling war, a troubled nation, all that is confused and passionate following the loss of the Vietnam War.
Though Hart's statue comes off as being an interloping compromise, I still want to see it (Up front: I've never had the honor of actually seeing the memorial(s) in person). To me, just a pup during Vietnam, the soldiers and POWs were my heroes, and I want to see it all--Maya Lin's wall, Hart's depiction of youth, fearful and tired. Both together are sure to astound.
This book covers the birth of an idea, the backlash, compromises that are hard to swallow all around. Lin, whom an outraged and insensitive Ross Perot referred to as Egg Roll due to her Asian heritage, is contentious and sometimes outrageous, grows to become thoughtful and reflective as Reston follows her through the years after the fight to get the memorial made. I didn't like her at first, but one always respects her as she navigates through a labyrinth of the political, of the emotional, of the hard memories that a nation is learning to deal with. (And by the way, Reagan doesn't wind up looking so good: Though Reston writes without acrimony, the man's actions and choices speak for themselves, and he could've done more to heal a hurting nation).
Expect even-handed writing, heavy on the thoughts, emotions, deeds and misdeeds, of all sides of the aisle, all sides of the conflict. Even the thoughts of those living post-war in Vietnam are expressed as Reston journeys there to find answers and a sense of closure. He lost a good friend at Hue, and he grieves as much as the soldiers, as much as the protesters (he has since written much on granting amnesty to all who left the country), as much as any mother or family member has.
A Rift in the Earth has none of the dryness that sometimes marks books on history. It's not a lesson but a hands-on experience sure to enlighten and sure to make you feel something.
Just looking at the picture on the book's cover says it all: All war is horrible; all war comes with grief and sacrifice that is hard to bear.
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