Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
Part 1. Sam Hughes, her uncle Emmett Smith, and her paternal grandmother Mamaw are traveling from their hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Their travel is slowed by the faulty transmission of their Volkswagen, so they decide to spend the night in a motel. At dinner, Mamaw wonders what life might have been like had Sam’s father, Dwayne Hughes, survived the Vietnam War. The next day, the trio is stranded on a Maryland highway and is forced to spend another night in a motel while the car is repaired.
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Part 2. Earlier in the summer, Sam had graduated from high school and began living in her mother’s house, along with Uncle Emmett, a jobless Vietnam veteran with unresolved health issues. Worries about Emmett and her desire to learn more about her father make the Vietnam War central to Sam’s thoughts for the rest of the summer.
Sam spends the summer in the company of her boyfriend, Lonnie Malone, and her friend Dawn. One night, Lonnie, Emmett, and Sam visit nearby Cawood Pond, where they smoke marijuana. The next day, Dawn pierces Sam’s ears. Sam also spends time with her uncle and his friends, Tom and Pete, who are also Vietnam veterans, and sometimes joins them for breakfast at McDonald’s, quizzing them about the war.
Sam visits Anita Stevens, a nurse and Emmett’s former girlfriend, encouraging her to get back into Emmett’s life and asking her for advice about Emmett’s medical problems. Sam continues to piece together the experience of Vietnam in whatever ways she can, remembering films about the war, connecting the Kentucky landscape with farmlands in Vietnam, and speaking with local veterans. Dinner at the home of Lonnie’s parents reveals the feelings of ordinary citizens regarding the war and those who fought in it.
Sam finally gets Emmett to see a doctor about his skin problem, which she is convinced is due to exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, but the doctor dismisses this theory as unlikely. Anita comes for dinner one evening, and Emmett agrees to attend the dance being organized by Jim for the Vietnam veterans.
Dropping by Tom’s auto-repair shop on her frequent runs through town, Sam starts to develop a romantic interest in Tom. During their impromptu tour of the clock tower of the courthouse, where Emmett once flew the Viet Cong flag, their attraction for each other intensifies. As her interest in Tom waxes, her feelings for Lonnie wane, and when Lonnie announces that he will be gone for several days to participate in his brother’s bachelor party, Sam decides that she will pursue Tom at the dance. Meanwhile, Dawn reveals that she is pregnant.
At the dance, Sam chats with the vets and dances with Tom. Anita arrives, slightly drunk. She dances with Emmett and shares her Vietnam story with Sam. Sam examines the decorations prepared by the vets—plastic models of weapons and vehicles used in Vietnam, palm trees, a huge cardboard replica of a tank—and tries to imagine what Vietnam was like. Two vets, Earl and Pete, get into a fight, destroying some of the decorations. Sam leaves the dance with Tom, picturing herself “walking point” as she follows him into his house. She spends the night there and discovers his impotence.
Emmett does not return home after the dance. He is still gone on Monday, so Sam begins to search for him. Her mother arrives in her red car, new baby and Emmett in tow, reporting that Emmett had arrived at her house in Lexington, dead drunk. He and Jim had decided to travel to Lexington so that Jim could visit his wife and child.
Irene is eager for Sam to move on with her life and encourages her to attend the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She describes her short marriage to Dwayne and her relationship with Bob, one of Emmett’s hippie friends. She suggests that Sam talk to her father’s parents, who have the notebook that he kept in Vietnam. Before she leaves, Irene gives Sam money to buy Tom’s Volkswagen.
Tom, embarrassed about their night together, refuses to take a ride with Sam when she picks up the car, telling her to find a boyfriend closer to her age. Later that day, after taking Dawn home from work and learning that Dawn will marry soon, Sam finds the letters that Irene saved from Dwayne’s time in Vietnam. They reveal Dwayne’s excitement upon learning that he is to be a father and that Dwayne had been the one to choose Sam’s name.
Lonnie comes home from the bachelor party, and Sam returns his ring. Sam visits the farm of her paternal grandparents and finds the notebook that her mother had described. Reading it, Sam is repulsed by the accounts of warfare. She finds it hard to believe that people like her Uncle Emmett could have participated in such violence.
Returning home, Sam discovers that Emmett has set up a flea bomb in their house, creating a fog that she thinks resembles the Agent Orange used in Vietnam. Grabbing some food and a sleeping bag, she heads for Cawood Pond, where she imagines herself surrounded by rice paddies, peasants, helicopters, and Viet Cong. She awakens the next morning to the noises of an intruder—Emmett—who has come looking for her, afraid that she may be in danger.
Sam criticizes her father for killing and for seeming to enjoy it. Emmett insists that Dwayne’s behavior was typical. Emmett describes his own experience of surviving a particularly hideous battle in Vietnam by concealing himself beneath the corpse of a dead comrade.
Emmett sobs when Sam accuses him of running away from a normal life and admits that since the war something has been missing inside him. All of his efforts go to keeping himself together, with nothing left for establishing and nurturing strong human relationships. Sam reassures him that he is capable of caring. As he leaves, he reminds her of a beautiful bird in flight.
Part 3. After the night at Cawood Pond, Sam feels as if she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Emmett takes action and proposes a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where they locate Dwayne’s name. Sam borrows a ladder from nearby workers so that she and Mamaw can reach the name. Later, as she checks the directory for her father’s name, Sam comes upon a name of a veteran that matches her own. Emmett finds the panel containing the names of his friends and sits before it, a broad smile on his face.