By: Scott Ely
Reviewed by: Katherine Henderson
Livingston Press, 2008
When Pender Hartwell returns to Egypt Ridge, Mississippi, after a tour of Vietnam, he receives no warm hero’s welcome. Instead, he is greeted with thinly veiled hostility which quickly turns into death threats. Scott Ely’s The Dream of the Red Road finds Pender largely unconcerned about these displays of the town’s animosity, however, preferring to spend his time remembering a girl, or as he phrases it, “studying love in my dreams.”
As his ever-growing pile of hate mail shows, the residents of Egypt Ridge, particularly the Daughters of the Confederacy, wish Pender would just go back to Vietnam. The Daughters think Pender is a traitor, and he cannot disagree, since his tour of Vietnam was far from meeting U.S. military standards. Though descended from a long line of military heroes, Pender eventually grew disillusioned with the war and its requisite killing, choosing to surrender to the North Vietnamese. He remained in Vietnam long after the war’s end, studying the country’s literature, particularly Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu, and watching “the girl in the white aoi dai” take her daily walk down the red road, singing. Pender would have happily stayed, studying literature and love, but when Mr. Chau, his teacher and intelligence officer, loses government favor, Pender must leave the country.
In love with both a Vietnamese poem and the image of a girl, Pender finds his time in Vietnam has changed him irreparably. It is with this realization that he struggles to balance his love of Vietnam with his love of the Mississippi Delta and his love for a poem and a memory with his new love for Miranda, an Egypt Ridge native made of flesh and blood. Hoping to woo Miranda, Pender dedicates himself to writing her love letters, often including his own translation of lines from Vietnamese poetry, and restoring his ancestral antebellum home. Can Pender move beyond the concept of love in the pages of a poem or his dream of the girl on the red road and find real love and happiness?
Evincing a deep love for literature, Scott Ely writes beautifully in the manner a poem can touch the mind, heart, and soul, forever altering its reader. The Dream of the Red Road engagingly, thought-provokingly, and poetically explores the struggle to find love, a purpose, and a home, despite the potentially ostracizing consequences of being true to oneself. Perhaps most importantly, The Dream of the Red Road asks, and possibly even answers, a most haunting question: Can you ever go home? Oct 2008
Katherine Henderson is a graduate student at the University of Montevallo.