top of page

Authorized Cruelty by Janice Barrett

Reviewed by Gail M. Murray

In her debut novel, Barrett’s impeccable research, in particular Matthew Connelly’s, The Declassification Engine, and Daniel Ellsberg’s The Pentagon Papers, transports us to 1968 Vietnam – the worst year of the conflict. This was the time of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, Kent State student beatings, and protest marches for civil rights and Women’s Liberation. Barrett creates a feisty heroine in twenty-four-year-old anti-war protester and USO entertainer Patty Fielding. Barrett’s mother, a professional dancer, was about to entertain the troops in WWII when a broken ankle prevented her from doing so.

Why a novel set in Vietnam? At fourteen, Barrett saw her cousin return from Vietnam a changed person. What happened to change him so drastically? This inspires Patty’s concern for her brother Christopher in Da Nang when he writes, “you can lose who you are here; there’s no normal.”

Inhumanity and desensitization, a recurring theme, is captured many times in the novel, but especially when the author describes Christopher. “Suddenly, he was tired of being numb, and afraid to feel, tired of seeing corpses bagged, tagged and shipped to become nothing more than inconvenient paperwork.”

The soldiers’ Zippo lighters used to light flamethrowers to burn and destroy villages became symbols of destruction and inhumanity.

After performing for the camp, Patty pays a visit to the field hospital, moving from bed to bed, singing for the wounded soldiers, holding a hand, brushing a cheek–-little acts of kindness. “She offered comfort to these men. To give them a piece of home to hang onto.....she saw in their faces that touch made a difference. It somehow added humanity that was missing.”

Barrett wisely gives the readers’ moments of quiet beauty before the intensity ensues. One moment that stands out is the scene between Patty and the young lieutenant, Pete, relaxing by an idyllic waterfall. Pow. Suddenly, he’s hit by a sniper. Dead. Patty returns to camp to find nothing left but dead bodies, the other soldiers retreating after a major assault (the Tet Offensive), her fellow entertainer evacuated by helicopter to safety.

Patty sets off alone through the jungle alone facing dangers from land mines and patrolling Vietcong to ravenous ants, mosquitos, poisonous snakes and cutting elephant grass. We breathe easier when she encounters an encampment of American soldiers. Not so fast. They don’t want her. She could thwart their secret reconnaissance mission. Here she’s privy to crude remarks, chauvinism, misogyny, manhandling, sexual harassment and attempted rape. One heroic soul emerges from the jungle locker room bravado. Soko, short for Sokolowski, becomes her protector.

Barett’s descriptions are visceral. There is non-stop edge of your seat action, constant obstacles and attitude to overcome in this vivid action adventure.

Although Patty is a general’s daughter who felt close to her father on the shooting range, she hates the army, where orders supersede decency and common sense. Politicians and generals often viewed the war with opposing positions; President Kennedy warned, ‘beware the generals’. Barrett flushes this out creatively in her novel.

Even when the mission is accomplished, and they are flown back to the States, something is amiss. Is she safe in her own country? The generals see her as a threat. Full of intrigue, action and rife with political undertones, the author uses fiction to bring this war home.

Authorized Cruelty is published by Blue Denim Press.


Tag Cloud
bottom of page