The novel opens as the coffins are making their way home, along with one remaining survivor, the now-maimed town quarterback recently rescued from a Vietnamese prison camp. Yet the return of the bodies sets off something inside of the town itself —a sense of violence, a political reality, a gnawing unease with the future — and soon, new bodies start turning up around town, pushing the families of Cementville into further alienation and grief.
Presented as the Our Town of its time, we’ll meet Maureen, the young sister of a recently returned solider who attempts to document the strange changes going on in her town; Harlan O’Brien, a war hero just rescued from three years in a POW camp whose PTSD starts bending his mind in terrifying ways; Evelyn Slidell, the wealthy icon and oldest woman in town, a descendent of the its founders and no stranger to what grief does to a family; Giang Smith, the ‘war bride’ who flees the violence of Vietnam with her new American husband only to encounter echoes of it in her new home; and the notorious Ferguson clan, led by the violent Levon and his draft-dodging younger brother Byard, who carry a secret that could further tear the town apart.
With the Civil Rights Act only a few years old, a restless citizenry divided over the war, and the Women’s Movement sending tremors through established assumptions about family life, Cementville
provides a microcosm of a society shedding the old order and learning how to live with grief — a situation with resonant echoes concerning war and community still being confronted today.
Cementville is all the more remarkable because it is Paulette Livers first novel. The pace and intensity may lag a bit in the middle and drop off after the tragic events of 1969. Still, that is a minor reservations about what is overall a fine achievement, a rich, compellingly imaginative work that allows us to see into the private emotional lives of those who have lost love ones during a war.
The writing in this novel is stunning. I could smell, see, touch and taste the world of the characters, whether it was the green cool of the mountain or the dirt and rocks of a gravel yard. I could feel the heartache of the parents who lost their sons. To have such a dark story told so beautifully makes for a wrenchingly painful tour-de-force that thankfully leaves the reader with the true possibility of finding love again.