Retro Fridays: Echo Company series by Ellen Emerson White

Today, being Friday, I thought I'd take the chance to participate in Angie's Retro Friday posts over at Angieville and review The Echo Company series by Ellen Emerson White writing as Zack Emerson. This series is definitely retro, written in the early '90s, but seeing as I read them for the first time this summer, I wanted to spread the love for this unbelievably unique series. Even though the books are split into four installments, they read like they should be one volume so I'm going to treat them like that here. In Welcome to Vietnam , we meet Private Michael Jennings - 18 years old and fresh off the plane for his year-long tour of duty in Vietnam. Wishing he had done anything to escape being sent there, (gone to college or even gone to Canada) Michael misses his family, good food and most of all his dog Otis. Just his luck, he is assigned to Echo Company, the ones who are currently in the middle of the jungle fighting for their lives. Never one to miss an opportunity to make a slick comeback (what's the worst they'll do? send him to Vietnam?) Michael is surly, irreverent, and more intelligent than he gives himself credit for. He is also scared silly and in way over his head - but hey, so is everyone else. Snoopy, a black kid from New Jersey, is put in charge of showing Michael the ropes which leads to some pretty humorous conversations since Snoopy is also something of a excitable puppy with a smart mouth. But all too soon, Michael and his squad are putting their life on the line while on patrol and during attacks. Holding back nothing, Michael sets down in painful detail the loss of friends and the grisly aftermath.

The sound of the explosion sent everyone diving to the ground, looking for cover. And, at first, when - stuff - rained down, Michael wasn't sure what it was. Then, he realized who is was. Who it had been.

There's no misunderstanding the horrors of war here. That said, Michael's oh so human reaction to death reminds you that he is only 18 years old. 18! Even though he's sickened, Michael responds with a ingrained sense of loyalty and compassion for the guys around him - showing his make without a second thought. Just wait, it gets better.

Hill 568 picks up after this horrific loss with the Echo Company boys getting buttered up with a steak dinner and rumors of a coming large scale offensive attack. Michael's main rule is to never volunteer for anything and this is not his idea of keeping a low profile. He's already been asked to walk point (which involves making sure nobody walks right into an attack or booby traps) for his squad and that mind numbing responsibility has left him strung too tightly as it is. Somehow they make it through, but with long-lasting consequences that aren't just physical.

Coming off that exhausting battle, the narrative switches to follow Lt. Rebecca Phillips in 'Tis the Season. Rebecca is in Vietnam for many personal reasons, one being the army paid for her nursing degree so she's agreed to spend one year as a nurse in a field hospital in Vietnam. Full of sass herself, Rebecca impulsively jumps on a medi-vac helicopter which then crashes in the jungle and kills her friends. Bad enough right? To her horror, some of the Vietnamese rebels heard the crash which leads to one unforgettable encounter with a young solider. Later, she stumbles through the jungle on a broken ankle until coming across Michael's squad - who are just as surprised to find her as she is them. Let's just say Michael is more than a little smitten with the ballsy Lieutenant.

Switching back to Michael's perspective, Stand Down is the final installment in this fantastic series. He's still a little shocked from finding the feisty Lieutenant wandering wounded in the middle of the jungle - after all he was on point and could have shot her. But when word comes that Echo Company will be on stand down (a type of break where the guys are sent to a noncombat zone), he's hoping for a chance to meet up with Rebecca and find out not only how she's doing but to see if she feels anything for him - because he's fallen pretty hard himself.

So it was more than a stretch for me to be picking up Vietnam war novels (of all things) but after stumbling upon Ellen Emerson White's The Road Home I knew I would do just about anything to pick up these first four books. Too pricey to buy (try $40 a pop), I enlisted the aid of my local librarian who happily found them on ILL and had them delivered no less than a couple of weeks later. Cheesy covers and sappy teaser lines aside, these books are solid gold. I knew I should expect some intelligent writing, but once again I was blown away with the deep emotion and sheer wit of it all. Michael's journey from fresh off the plane cherry to experienced point man in a matter of months is just plain riveting. Throw in one fiesty field nurse and you've got yourself a page-turner.

Additionally, this isn't one of those war novels that patronizes the soldiers by making them seem overly patriotic or full of political rhetoric. Michael and his squad mates are just guys, none too happy with their current situation, who are simply trying to make it out alive with at least a bit of their sanity left. Take this quote from Hill 568 which illustrates Michael's mixed feelings about what was expected of him in the army:

One thing he was learning about the Army was that you could be tired, or sick, or in pain -- and you did the job, anyway. You might gripe and groan a little - or even a lot - but you did what had to be done. If he were at home, and had blistered his hands this badly raking leaves, say, or shoveling snow, he probably would have quit, and gone inside the house to lay down. Here, he just had to grit his teeth, and get on with it.
So, he was either building character, or else he had fallen so deep into the group mentality that he was incapable of making any sort of decision for himself.

Tough call.

See? He's a smart aleck, grumpy but so dang lovable. Above all, he's bascially just a teenager who has been thrust into a situation that quickly turns him into an adult. FYI, Michael and Rebecca's story is continued in The Road Home, which naturally switches back to Rebecca's pov - just be warned - have some kleenex handy and don't get attached to many of the secodary characters. But still, pick it up. I promise you won't regret a minute spent on trying to get a hold of any of these fabulous books.

series reading order:
~ Welcome to Vietnam, Echo Company #1
~ Hill 568, Echo Company #2
~ 'Tis the Season, Echo Company #3
~ Stand Down, Echo Company #4
~ The Road Home - my review


Angiegirl said...

Oh my. This is an excellent start to your Retro Fridays posts. ;) What a series it is. I actually bought them each one by one as I could scrounge up the money and then I went and gave all four away to a friend! Seriously, I don't know what possessed me. So now I'm back to square one.

Thanks for reviewing these. More people need to be aware of them. I love Michael so much.

Michelle said...

You gave them all away?! Thanks some true book sharing ;). I think I'm going to start trying to add them to my collection little by little too.

Thanks for starting the Retro Fridays - it's a great way to hear about some classics!