Throughout the impressive Flowers of the Dinh Ba Forest Robert David Clark evokes the sights, sound, and even sensations and smells of the rice paddies and humid jungles of Vietnam as only an ex-G.I. could. Both the green lushness and the hidden dangers of the Dinh Ba Forest are described with an outstanding vividness.
The reader follows several characters through the course of only a few days of action. These include: Sau Ban, a North Vietcong operative; Douh, a Vietnamese translator; Tuan, a teenaged Vietnam farmer; and Tuan’s mother, Tay Ninh, who is a laundress in the U.S. Army camp. These four interact with subtle complexity. Only one of them survives at the end of the novel. However, American soldiers and their officers constitute the majority of Clark’s characters. The reader learns of their personal predilections and psychological motivations in only a short space—the sign of a masterful narrator at work. Also, the settings and atmosphere are so precisely depicted that the reader truly travels through the camp, rice paddies, and forest with these men.
The soldiers’ private, renegade activities during the Christmas truce center around retrieving a rare orchid for soldier Tucker Burdick’s father to grow back in Iowa. Tucker’s cohorts (the other men in his platoon) are all crisply drawn. They include: Leon, a fellow Iowan; Preacher from Minnesota; Conroy of Kansas; and Monroe from Los Angeles, the only black man in the First Platoon. The hardships these soldiers endure, the maturing process they undergo when confronting the enemy (and their own selves), and their most intimate thoughts about each other and the treacherous time their share are well detailed by Clark.
The novel closes with an elaborate and complex surreptitious entry into the army camp by Sau Ban. His stealth and cunning are highlighted, as are the brave actions the American soldiers take to defend themselves. Clark is excellent at summing up the great variety of experiences these men (and one woman) have in the course of a cruel war, all by his focusing on only one basic tactical mission in Vietnam.