When Thomas W Just is born in 1947, he is beloved by his people, Native Americans who live on the northern West Coast of the Pacific, people whose lore is of song and memory, of whales given from the sea that the people may survive. Much like his wise grandfather, Thomas is of the sea and its creatures, living in harmony with the old ways. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Ruth, only to be separated after one foolish night of drinking, when Thomas signs up for the army. When he leaves, Ruth is carrying their son. In Vietnam, Thomas is tormented by the horrors, conflicted, finding solace among the surviving remnants of destruction, a nascent life force resisting annihilation by chemical and fire. Thomas is absorbed into the community of civilians: "On the ground, in the sky, everything would kill you." The war breaks his spirit and silences the voices he has heard all his life, the roots of his identity, the ancestors, Ruth, his place in the world.
But life is not easily defeated in such a man, filled with profound respect for nature and renewal; Thomas reverts to solitude and silence, working beside the villagers, one of them until the army, thinking to retrieve him, drags him away from his new life, from Ma and their daughter, Lin. Back in the states, Thomas cannot find his way home, his spirit absent, hollow. By the time he returns to his grandfather's empty place on the black rocks, the world has passed him by, insignificant. Now the story is about Ruth, the patient, wise woman who has loved Thomas all her life, has raised their son only to have fate steal him away, one more tragedy she bears with stoic endurance, bred to understand her people and their history. And the story is about Lin, who survives Vietnam without mother or father, who builds a life from nothing, the memory of her father enshrined in her heart, giving her courage. It is Lin, a young married woman, who finds Thomas, trapped so long in the shadows of his troubled soul. Lin, the repository of loss and hope, is delivered finally to Thomas by Ruth. What bitterness could there be for those who have known such losses?
Hogan transcends place and culture, weaving together the frail threads of damaged people, humanizing, making whole that which has been brutalized, marrying past to present. Whether inside the tribal beliefs of the People of the Whale or the patched-together culture of Ho Chi Min city, new lives are recreated from remnants of the old, the human spirit shining brightly from the pages, indomitable against greed and rancor, the lexicon of war. The journey is extraordinary, two worlds brought seamlessly together, two cultures steeped in pain, suffering and annihilation, ever renewed when those of vision refuse to surrender the past to a more profane present. This is not a story one leaves willingly, these characters, Thomas, Ruth and Lin, familiar as our better selves, we who wander so easily from our ties to the earth, tenuous though they have become. Such writing is soul-healing, reminding us that ancestors hold the wisdom of the people, stringing one generation to another with song, story and memory, no matter the geography of identity. Luan Gaines/ 2008.