Summary: When Nate’s estranged father phones out of the blue, he changes Nate’s summer plans of turning his life around and winning over the attentions of his local crush. Instead Nate and his father whom he refers to as Old Man embark on a journey to Vietnam, revisiting the Old Man’s past as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Separated from his father for years, Nate gets a chance to know and see him as he truly is, someone deeply affected by the choices of the past. Not everything he learns about his father is pretty, but their travels together give Nate a different perspective on life and what’s really important.
Number of Pages: 217
Age Range: 15-17
Review: In a contemplative read that explores the personal impact of the Vietnam War, Old Man by David A. Poulsen is about a father and son connecting before it is too late.
I did have a couple of problems – Nate’s anger toward his father for all of the years he wasn’t around seemed to dissipate quite quickly, the Old Man’s abandonment of his wife and son isn’t adequately explained and the fact that the Old Man was dying seemed like a ploy to add more drama to the story – but my problems were overshadowed by my intrigue over the historical aspect and the relationship Nate and the Old Man build.
Told from Nate’s unique and spirited perspective, Old Man follows the growth of both father and son as they confront the Old Man’s past together. I’ve read Poulsen’s book before but found it was a completely different experience knowing the Old Man’s intentions right from the start. What I love about this story besides the two strong main characters was how much I learned about the Vietnam War. From the Old Man’s experiences alone it is easy to see how a person would be affected for the rest of their lives after living through it.
Once I got used to it, I appreciated Nate’s open nature and quick willingness to accept his father as he was. This easily could have been a story about teen angst and a father’s quest for forgiveness, but instead it is a glimpse into the moment that defined the Old Man’s life and the journey with his father that will go on to define Nate’s.
Because it contains some disturbing, yet historically accurate elements, I’d recommend this book for mid to older teens.
“‘And this is where the battle you told me about, the one you and Tal were in, this is where that battle happened?’
‘Why did you want to come back here?’
‘Jesus, Nate, you could be one of those interviewers on 60 Minutes or something. These are tough questions.’
‘A lot of guys come back. Visit the places where shit happened. I don’t know exactly why. I never wanted to experience anything like that ever again. And I didn’t think I’d want to reminded of what happened here. So I can’t explain exactly why we’re here, except that I guess I changed my mind.'” – Conversation between Nate and the Old Man from Old Man by David A. Poulsen, page 110
“‘You’re doin’ good, Nate.’
For some reason I liked hearing him say that. I wasn’t at all sure I was doing good, but I wasn’t doing all that bad either. And I realized something. I hadn’t complained about anything, not really, for at least a couple of days. Ruining my image.” – Nate reacting to a comment from Old Man in Old Man by David A. Poulsen, page 121
I sat back down in the foxhole. ‘Listen, I’m not pissed off or anything, but I’m still wondering why you brought me here.’
He slid up the backpack, pulled it behind his head, lay back on it. ‘Sometimes the most important thing that happens in your life isn’t a good thing. This is the most important thing that ever happened to me. I wish I could say it was your mom. Or you. But it was this. I want you to know me. To know me you have to know this.'” – Conversation between Nate and the Old Man from Old Man by David A. Poulsen, page 129
“‘Nate, Vietnam was a bad deal. It shouldn’t have happened. Like a lot of wars shouldn’t happen. But one thing I learned. Once you’re in a firefight or on a search and destroy or getting the shit kicked out of you on a hill with a number for a name, you aren’t fighting for your country or to make the world a better place. You fight for the guys around you. You ever hear that expression about the guys in the trenches?’
‘When you’re in those trenches, the only people who matter to you are the people beside you. They’re trying to stay alive; you’re trying to stay alive. And you’re trying to keep each other alive. That’s what I was doing in Vietnam. I didn’t know that’s the way it would be when I enlisted. I thought I’d be fighting for my country and my family and my officers and my uniform – stuff like that. But that isn’t how it turned out.'” – Conversation between the Old Man and Nate about the true nature of war from Old Man by David A. Poulsen, pages 208-209
“I looked at him, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was still staring up at the night sky. He moved his shoulders up and down. ‘You asked me what if I hadn’t come here to fight. I don’t know. Maybe I’d have been an accountant or taught school. Or gone ranching sooner than I did.
‘I know this. I’d be a different person than the one I am. I know things about me that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been a soldier in Vietnam. I know that no matter how scared I am, I can still fight. I know that the men next to me on the battlefield can count on me. I know I can see death coming and fight like a son of a bitch to keep it away. That’s going to be kind of important for the next while.'” – the Old Man from Old Man by David A. Poulsen, page 209