Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel by John Podlaski
Those first few days at a new school can always be tough. You don't know where to go, what to do, and you are dependant on the advice given to you by others. Now imagine that your school is in the jungles of Southeast Asia, your school bus is a Huey, and those that can't keep up with the learning curve are maimed or killed. That is the life of the cherries, or newcomers to Vietnam. John Kowalski, affectionately referred to as Polack, finds himself in this toughest of all learning situations when he is shipped off for his one year tour in Vietnam in 1970. Will he survive long enough to go from being a cherry to an old-timer? What a difference a year can make.
This is not a traditional novel! Traditional novels follow the tradition of introduction, conflict, resolution, etc., etc. Cherries does not follow this pattern. Introductions, conflicts, and resolutions are occurring constantly throughout the book. Nearly three-fourths of the novel is spent describing the main character's experiences in the 25th Infantry Division, so his description of events in the 101st Airborne Division seems hurried. There were also numerous typos and errors in the Kindle version that I read. It is possible that these occurred when the manuscript was being adapted to Kindle, as I have seen similar problems in some "big name" books as well.
This is not a traditional novel! Yes, it seems odd to have that observation listed as both good and bad, but it falls under both categories. Cherries reads like a memoir, which makes it much more believable. Life does not follow a pattern of introduction, conflict, and resolutions, so neither does this novel. The author does a great job of describing both the good and the bad to be found in a nation that most American's still have trouble finding on a map. The reality of the characters is evident in both their strengths and their flaws. John Kowalski is not Rambo. The first time he sees combat, he wets his pants. The first time he sees one of his comrades killed, he vomits. However, his determination keeps him going. You find yourself missing characters as they come and go out of Kowalski's life. You even find yourself appreciating some of the simpler things more as you read, like the joy of tasting an ice cold soda.
If I were to rate this book simply as a novel, I would probably give it 3 out of 5 stars. Sure, if you have it, read it, but don't go out of your way to find it. However, knowing that this novel is actually a fictionalized account of the authors tour of Vietnam, I cannot rate it as a novel. This is truly a memoir with names changed, and that changes the expectations of the book. Cherries opens your eyes to what many faced in "the Nam," and reminds us that a true hero isn't flawless, but they are determined. Cherries will make you want to find all of the other "Kowalskis" out there just to give them a thumbs-up. From that point of view, I would have to give Cherries by John Podlaski a 4 out of 5 stars. If you see it, read it. If you don't see it, look for it!
Reviewed by Christopher Slater
Christopher Slater is a history teacher, reenactor, and author of Trapped in Shades of Grey. He also writes reviews on his blog, Cure My Writers Block (curemywritersblock.blogspot.com).