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Facing the Dragon by Phillip Derrick explores the Vietnam War era through the eyes of an extraordinary high school student named Jim Peterson, who at fifteen made the varsity football team as a freshman. He’s intelligent as well as physically fit as he begins his journey in the backseat of a station wagon with his sister on their way to a family vacation, seemingly a typical teenager.
In the first couple of pages, his dad picks up a hitchhiker in an Army uniform, and the story takes off from there. Jim ends up separated from his family and tries to reunite with them in the Carlsbad Caverns; instead, he is the only witness to their murders.
Jim watches in horror as their bodies are disposed of in the Deep Pit of the Carlsbad Caverns, and shortly thereafter makes the decision to become the young soldier and follow the murderer to Vietnam where he will enact his revenge for his family.
Thus, begins the shift to the extraordinary world of military life for our high school freshman, from a boy on vacation with his family to a young man on a mission as sleuth and soldier. The seamless way Derrick identifies the patches and medals given by the military provide clues about Jim’s father, PFC Travis Nickels, and the mystery man Ross, in a unique and interesting manner.
We learn about the importance of a crossed-double sword and a parachute on a patch. We learn a great deal about paying attention to the tiniest detail on a patch to help find clues, which our hero does several times. These subtle clues build interest in the story. The stakes are high for Jim, who takes matters into his own hands and follows the suspect to Vietnam, believing that based on the man’s patches, finding him in Vietnam won’t be an issue.
It seemed implausible for fifteen-year-old to be deployed with the paperwork of another soldier. Jim Peterson becomes PFC Travis Nickels. Our quick-minded protagonist lies when he has to and loses important fingerprint documents at crucial checkpoints. If a corporal thinks he’s an imbecile, he doesn’t care as long as he obtains his objective.
Derrick takes us through bases and onto transports that finally bring us to the landscape of the Vietnam War, up close and personal. We are with Jim as mines are exploding all around him, as Huey helicopters are blown out of the sky right above his head, as he catches malaria and is assigned the foulest job for getting sick, which Sargent Strode believes he’s done on purpose.
We can feel the sweat trickling down backs, smell the foul orders, and see the bark split as bullets hit the trees around him.
Derrick splits the POV between Ross and the man who Jim is impersonating, taking us back to WWII Germany. The research Derrick had to do to pull this off is mind-boggling. Ross, a German soldier, the same age/era as Jim’s father, lies about who he is to escape Germany, enlists in the US military, and begins a quest to enact revenge for his brother. He is the foil to Jim who takes Nickel’s place, goes to Vietnam, to seeks revenge for his family.
Theirs becomes a twisted relationship of coincidences, but a fascinating one as the truth unfolds in the tiniest hints and innuendos. The tension on every page is palpable, as Nickels finds himself fighting in a war, where race riots in Vietnam erupt off the page like something off our news feeds today. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought in it are also examined, as well as the division in attitudes the war caused at home. The author leaves no controversial topic left unexamined.
This novel will keep readers turning pages and reading into the night. Derrick sprinkles so many interesting facts about the US military, the Vietnam War, WWII after the fall and the liberation of one concentration camp in particular. Derrick shows the daily grind of humping through the jungle, the mind-numbing boredom of waiting for battle, and then the chaos in the very-all-too-real life or death battles.
Phillip Derrick does not disappoint in this military thriller. He takes us on a wild ride that hangs just this side of “what the hell?” He’s a talented author with a deft ability to capture the historical and logistical aspects of this story without losing credibility or the reader’s confidence. Facing the Dragon is a book for all readers, not just those who love a great mystery/thriller or historical war story. One of our favorites!
Facing the Dragon won First Place in the CIBAs 2018 CLUE Awards for mystery/thriller novels.