The year is 1970, and Reid Holcombe is trapped in the transition between Viet Nam and “The World.” He’s traveled from Saigon to Okinawa, to California, and finally, to Beaufort, South Carolina, and “each stop, men splintered off in different directions, intent on picking up the frayed threads of life, all the while leaving scraps of themselves tangled, trembling in the wind.”
In Nancy Hartney’s If You Walk Long Enough (The Wild Rose Press, 2021), tender, beautiful writing chronicles the agonizing reality of a war veteran trying to weave those frayed threads into a new life.
As the story opens, Reid is in the Beaufort airport. He calls his wife but refuses to allow her to pick him up. He refers to her as Eleanor rather than Ellie, using formality to keep intimacy at bay. He asks for a slow reentry. “I need time. Everything’s falling apart. Nothing makes any sense. It’s all lost. Maybe us too.” Reid wanders, keeping Ellie tethered yet distant, and finally allows his sister to retrieve him from the airport and take him to his childhood home.
Reid’s sister Angela is no stranger to struggle and tragedy. Since Reid’s been gone, she’s buried both their father and her husband. She perseveres out of necessity — teaching school and toiling to keep the family tobacco farm in business. Reid joins her, trying to drown his ghosts in the sweat of labor. As he works, he toys with relationships, maintaining each in a tenuous balance between ruin and reconciliation.
Aside from his wife and sister, Reid has a strained relationship with Joe Terrell, whose parents strive to live a quiet, independent farm life. Like Reid, Joe is a Viet Nam veteran. However, unlike Reid, Joe must battle not only the ghosts of a foreign war but also the visceral reality of racism on the homefront.
Hartney, a member of Tallahassee Writers Association, weaves a nonlinear narrative, focusing more heavily on themes than chronology, fusing past and present with dreamlike seamlessness. The reader gathers scraps of Reid’s life as they are dealt by the author’s strategic hand, creating a bittersweet mosaic: some gem-like beauty within an abundance of painfully sharp edges.
Hartney’s novel is gritty, realistic, and not for the faint-hearted. The veteran’s homecoming doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of a life that is complex and stained with human imperfection. Hartney tackles weighty issues like racism, infidelity, sexual orientation, and bleak financial strain because these issues are real, and they form the context of the world Reid inhabits.
Throughout the novel, Hartney’s prose is lyrical and well-designed. She has earned praise for the quality of her craft as well as the candor and authenticity of her characters. Hartney’s debut novel is a soulful touchstone for adults who lived through the events of the late 60s and early 70s, and for adults too young to remember those turbulent years, Hartney offers the vicarious experience of genuine human history.
Learn more about If You Walk Long Enough and Nancy’s other writings, and her varied offerings of workshops and presentations, at http://www.nancyhartney.com.
- TWA reviewer Susan Koehler is the author of two middle-grade novels, Dahlia in Bloom, a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2019 historical fiction selection, and the recently released contemporary mystery, Nobody Kills Uncle Buster and Gets Away With It.