Revenants: The Odyssey Home tells us the story of Betsy, a young girl who loses her brother Nathan in the Vietnam war. The whole family struggles with Nate’s death, but when Betsy starts lashing out at school, she gets forced to volunteer at the local veteran’s hospital to deal with her problems. Here she discovers a mysterious old patient kept secret on the hospital’s attic, who can only communicate through tapping Morse code with his finger. Parallel to Betsy’s story we learn about the old man’s past, fighting in the first World War. Betsy tries to discover the man’s identity to reunite him with his family, but forces are at power who rather have the veteran remain anonymous.
I am really divided on what I think of this book. Let’s start with some good points. Kauffman knows how to excellently describe the emotional trauma some of the characters go through, even for a time where most of those characters aren’t looking to express those feelings. I was crying within twenty pages. The strongest part is that he doesn’t seem to be trying to focus on these trauma’s, but they just happen to roll into the story. For example, there’s very little information on Betsy’s mother, but when she tries to go on a date she has to cancel last minute because her mom is having a breakdown. In Nathan’s diary we read how he tries to stay positive when visiting home, not showing what he’s going through, but he does have to park his car while on a round trip because he has the ‘shakes’. These constant reminders of trauma pop up throughout the story and infiltrate daily life, and I think that is an important representation of mental illness. It’s not just people who are in such bad shape they have to be hospitalized. Almost everyone in Betsy’s life is affected by war traumas and tries to deal with it in their own way.
This is where the comparison with the first World War becomes important as well. Through the old veteran’s stories, we learn about the horrible circumstances in the tranches and the shell shock it causes in many soldiers. Soldiers who experience mental problems are seen as weak. When we return to the parts of the book playing in the 70s, we don’t see that much of a change in behaviour towards the veterans of the Vietnam war. They are in the hospital because of their physical injuries, and although almost all of them suffer from huge psychological problems, nobody is treating them for this. So not only does Kauffman show us a very diverse selection of mental problems, he also points out the problems that appear when these people don’t get help.
Now, those were two major good points about the book, but as I said, I’m also critical about some other stuff, mostly style. Kauffman sometimes needs to be a bit more careful with the way he builds his plot. For example, the story gets starting with a simple plotline: girl loves her brother, brother dies, girl lashes out because of emotional problems, girl has to volunteer as veteran’s hospital to recover. This seems pretty straightforward and logical: in a time where therapy isn’t as available as now, it can be a good idea to help others to get you through your own fears. The cause for Betsy’s misbehaviour is also clear, it’s the death of her brother. However, the problems she starts getting at school, the lashing out, is described so incredibly quick, it just seems so little. Forcing Betsy to spend all her free time at a veteran’s hospital for months is a pretty big thing to do, and without proper attention to the reason for this ‘punishment,’ it just seems like an overreaction. This lack of attention for a motivation happens more often, although I can’t really give any more examples without spoiling the end of the story.
Another thing I liked less was the dramatic endings to chapters or paragraphs. A little too often it felt like a bad movie where someone stares into the distance and repeats something obvious several times. Look at these endings to paragraphs or chapters:
“They need you, Betsy. You can be the one to help get them home.” (43)
“It’ll never be my car. Not now. Not ever.” (78)
“Hopes you do.” Filbert reached for a hotdog. “Surely hopes you do.” (83) (This one even really has the repetition!)
“You son of a bitch. You son of a whoring bitch.” (146) (This isn’t even said directly at a person, but whilst looking out a window.)
“What was it, Randy? What was it you were going to fix?” (166) (Said by Betsy to herself.)
These kinds of dramatic endings always annoy me because it rips me out of a story. Nobody talks like that, so there’s immediate loss of realism. Especially when characters are alone, it’s better to just let them think things than make them say it out loud. This goes even more for a story like this: these aren’t dramatic people. They are very normal people trying to process some heavy stuff, and they don’t need to create this extra dramatic tension in their life.
One last thing that bothered me was the whole Odyssey theme. The subtitle of the book is The Odyssey Home and throughout the book there are multiple references to ancient Greece and The Odyssey. I like how the process of recovering from mental illness is compared to the process of coming home from war, because it acknowledges the huge struggle both can be. Both are referred to a journey and as ‘coming home,’ and both are called an Odyssey. However, this is referenced a little too often, and Kauffman makes a lot of
other comparisons with The Odyssey and ancient Greece in general, and I just don’t agree with some. For example, at page 113 Kauffman says “the Greeks of Homer believed no man can claim to have lived a good life until he expired his last breath and so could not know if his life had been indeed blessed.” Well, there was a Greek who once said something like that, Solon, who lived in the sixth century BC (we read about him in The Histories 1.32 by Herodotus). Homer wrote about the Trojan war, which happened in the twelfth or thirteenth century BC and Homer himself lived in the eighth century BC. Thus, Kauffman is at least a few centuries off (but hey, maybe I’m wrong and Homer also makes the same statement. In that case, I’d love to see the quote). Now, as a former student of Greek and Latin, I usually get all giddy when a book refers to ancient Greece,
so it’s a shame when a reference is incorrect. I also feel like all these references don’t really contribute much to the story. It’s an extra theme the story doesn’t really need because it’s already complex enough.
Wow, this review has really become a long one! So in a short recap: Kauffman writes a thrilling story, with attention to important subjects. He manages to talk about war traumas in a very respectful and diverse manner. But he does need to watch out for how he handles his plot line. Not everything that needs motivation is actually motivated and there are some unnecessary themes. You can buy your copy of Revenants: The Odyssey Home here!