Cigarettes were the Agent Orange you paid for. –Sully (Hearts in Atlantis)
The Things They Carried is widely hailed as one of the finest books about the Vietnam War. Sometimes poignant war stories sneak up on you, where you least expect them.
I recently picked up Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis due to a recommendation I heard months ago, from none other than Seattle’s favorite reader, Nancy Pearl. I remembered her saying that Hearts in Atlantis was terrifying because of the way the terror slowly reveals itself. Though I had previously really enjoyed Stephen King’s books, I hadn’t read one in years. Pearl’s description made me want to check in with King again.
Hearts in Atlantis is a book that, strangely, complements O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In these two books, King and O’Brien are telling a story of survival, lost innocence, and a war’s interminable legacy. And in their own way, both books are a little fantastical. In Hearts in Atlantis, King brings in his penchant for terror early in his protagonists’ lives, long before they ever go to war. He then uses that terror to explore the reasons why some became anti-war activists and why others became soldiers.
You won’t find Hearts in Atlantis on any “read-alike” list for The Things They Carried. There are many outstanding books about war, or that use war as a metaphor. The Everett Public Library currently owns 57 titles with the Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975 — Fiction subject heading, and even more under Vietnam War, 1961-1975 — Fiction.
What I enjoyed most about reading Hearts in Atlantis was not just the book itself, but the transcendence of Pearl’s recommendation, the way the book unexpectedly balanced my reading of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. To me, this is what programs like The Big Read are all about!