Reconciliation: A Son’s Story is an important book and, despite some literary failings, a successful book.
The book is written in honor of the author’s father—Vernon Sparks—who “experienced extreme trauma to body and mind at a time when mental health research and treatment were barely getting attention.”
Vernon Sparks served in the United States Navy in World War II and Korea. He was belowdecks in the USS West Virginia when it was torpedoed at Pearl Harbor. He worked his way free and swam under burning oil to escape, then spent the next five-and-a-half years in combat duty. When he returned, he underwent two months of psychiatric evaluation and therapy for “battle fatigue” at an Army hospital. But he was not healed. According to author Steve Sparks, Vernon Sparks was a “mentally ill, dangerous man who kept his family in a cage as victims of extreme abuse.”
The book is about the lingering ramifications of his father’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—what the author deems “collateral damage.” The trauma of war was passed down to the second generation—to a son so angry with his father that he didn’t attend his funeral—and even a third generation, as for many years the author passed his own anger and anxiety on to his children. The book is an attempt at catharsis, at coming to terms with that legacy. In this regard, the book succeeds.
Where the book fails is in its delivery. It’s a haphazard amalgamation of memoir, biography, war story, oral history, documentary, and life philosophy/self-help, and whether due to lack of artistic skill or effort, Sparks failed to mesh the constituent parts into a unified and compelling whole. Most of the narrative is rendered as transcriptions of oral interviews with the author’s mother and siblings. These are interspersed with photographs, first-person musings, news clips, random blog comments, scanned postcards, and copied email correspondence between the author and surviving members of “The Greatest Generation.” Since the book was published as an e-book, it is riddled with hyperlinks. This makes the book a more dynamic and interactive read, but occasionally, as when Sparks simply cuts and pastes the standard medical definitions of PTSD into the text, makes it read like a lazily cobbled-together college report.
Despite Reconciliation: A Son’s Story’s literary failures, it succeeds in documenting the ravages of PTSD. The reader gains a sense of how emotionally scarring it would be to grow up with a sick and scarred father. In his plainspoken way, this retired telecommunications executive-turned-author delivered the occasional heartbreaker that a more lyrically inclined writer may have overdone: “As a kid, I always wondered why Dad never hugged or kissed me.”
And, unintentional as it may be, this is an extremely timely book. The United States has been at war for 11 years. It has sent over 2.4 million members of the armed service into war, and they are now returning home.
Last time this happened, after Vietnam, the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study found that life-time prevalence of PTSD was 30.9 percent for males and 26.9 percent for females. If we apply the same rates to the veterans from the latest Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 216,000 men and women, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, may have intense feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror for the rest of their lives.
Sure, significant strides have been made in recognizing and treating PTSD since Vietnam and World War II. But make no mistake, returning veterans will—and do—suffer from PTSD. As reported by The New York Times, during the early half of 2012, the suicide rate among the nation’s active-duty military personnel outpaced active war deaths.
Perhaps all this is just another “sacrifice” made by a nation to support its wars. But at least in Vernon Sparks’ case, his PTSD began on the day the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. For our veterans of Iraq and their families we have no such balm, no such justification—we sacrificed them for a war based on lies.
Steve Sparks will be reading from Reconciliation: A Son’s Story at Grass Roots Books this Saturday, Aug. 18 at 2 p.m.
By Nathaniel Brodie