“Better the silence of the tomb than a promise falsely given.” With these words Willy Hartline begins a journey to fulfill that promise, made to a best friend and a brother, in the moment before his death. The story takes Willy, who is white, and Garnet, who is black, through a childhood together in the same household, their separation by racism at puberty, their adolescence during the days of forced integration, Massive Resistance, and civil rights, in a small Virginia city. Along the way Willy learns an aspect of black life that undercuts the racism all around him, and both boys learn deeply the ways of the woods from Garnet’s Uncle Charles. At their segregated high schools both boys become football stars, and are forced to meet again in a final game the last year before integration, by the racist school board determined to “show them who’s boss” one last time.
The journey continues with their enlistment in the Marines, and Willy’s passage through boot camp, advanced infantry training, and on into Vietnam, one month behind Garnet. Along the way Willy discovers aspects of darkness in himself—and in us all—that he had never suspected were there, and learns that he is far more than he had ever been taught he was. The skills he learned in the woods as a child serve him and preserve him in Vietnam, where he kills another human being for the first time and witnesses some of the terrible face of war. After six months in a line unit he realizes the men are simply being used as bait by superiors who have no idea of the reality of the war they are fighting, and he volunteers for a long-range reconnaissance unit that goes into North Vietnam. On their second mission a sick member of the team is replaced at the last minute by The Reaper, a member of the assassination units that go behind enemy lines, who turns out to be Garnet. The two then enter North Vietnam and have to confront the reality of the racism they were both subjected to, and what their truest bond is as fellow human beings, before the war brings them both to a place they had never thought to go.
Along the way we meet characters that remain powerful in memory: Maisie, Garnet’s mother and housekeeper for Willy’s family; Charles, her brother, expert woodsman and carpenter who refuses to bow to the racism that governs so much of black life in the South; Mr. T., Willy’s football coach in high school, who teaches him how to reach beyond himself; Carol, a vain beauty who uses everyone around her, including Willy; Ann, who teaches Willy what love really is before he goes off to war; Plato, a black recruit who teaches Willy the meaning of his own attitudes about race; Cerberus, a three-tour black-ops sergeant who tells Willy what the real darkness he is entering is like; and a nameless Buddhist monk and former soldier who in the midst of a war shows Willy what real peace might mean.
In an epilogue Willy chronicles his difficult passage from the war back into life, and how he comes to fulfill the promise he made to Garnet.
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