Fallen Angels: Still a Relevant Weapon in the Teaching of Race Relations, War & Justice, and Growing Up

Walter Dean Myers. Fallen Angels. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1988.

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"We were supposed to smile a lot and treat the people with dignity. They were supposed to think we were the good guys. That bothered me a little. I didn’t like having to convince anybody that I was the good guy."51rDUGdrxgL.jpg


Fallen Angels is set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The protagonist, Perry, is a young man just out of high school who joins the army because he feels it is the easiest option. In Vietnam he meets several interesting characters in his platoon who become his comrades and brothers-in-arms. Perry grows and develops in this tale as he is quickly thrown out of his comfort zone and shown what life is like during war. Loss of innocence is constantly shown through the fact that Perry and many of his comrades are more boys than men, and yet they are called upon to kill. Perry sees the violence and begins to question the morality of fighting, not just in Vietnam, but in general. When he sees the first dead Vietcong, he literally can put a face on the enemy and asks questions like, "I wondered if he had a family? Had he been out on patrol? When did he know he was going to die?" As the war pushes forward, he even begins to question why America is there in the first place and what they are gaining.
Issues of race are also brought up, as Perry and several of his comrades are African American and some of their superiors show prejudice. They are given the more dangerous missions and are treated with less respect. Going into the war, some were already concious of the presence of a possible rift between races, one man trying to convince all of the black soldiers to cut their palms and become "blood brothers" on the plane ride to Vietnam. Soon, though, the bond between the soldiers is a stronger force than what any prejudice could separate. When a new man in charge joins the group that shows signs of prejudice against the black soldiers, they tell each other that they are going to stick together, but it is not just the black men, it is the Italian man, the Jewish man, anyone who knows what it is like being a minority.

There is also a story of Perry's family. We hear through his thoughts how his father left when he was young, how his mother may not love his exactly like his younger brother, Kenny, but how he also does not love her the same way. Perry wants to be an inspiration and role model for his younger brother who is growing up on the same hard streets that Perry did. When he writes to Kenny he debates between telling him how things are really going in Vietnam and the things that maybe would not be so realistic and vivid in the war. Perry overall wants to make his brother proud of him through his service to his country.

During the course of this book, the reader gets to see a transformation in Perry that is unique to his experience in war. Before the fighting began, it was exciting to think about how many "Congs" he would kill and he wanted to write his little brother back home and make him proud. Yet after his first kill, he asks himself why he did it, and the only answer he can come up with is from his friend Peewee that says, "He was gonna kill you ass if you didn't kill his." As the story continues we see his killing become more indiscriminate and he is forced to make himself numb to the reality if he wants to stay sane. If nothing else, his journey shows the unavoidable brutality and dehumanizing effects of war and how kids as young as seventeen deal with this situation. By the end of the book, he is completely jaded and sums up his experience by saying, "When the killing started, there was no right or wrong except in the way you did your job, except in the way you were part of the killing." Yet, Perry comes to the harrowing realization that despite all of their fighting, nothing fundamentally changed for all their sacrifice. There is no intrinsic shift in thought or action of the American people due to the fact that so many of each new generation put their lives on the line everyday. The last lines of the book illustrate this point as Perry notices on his plane ride home that, "The plane droned on. A fat man complained that they didn't have the wine he wanted. We were headed back to the World."

The characters are realistic and memorable. The main character, Perry, is someone that any reader can sympathize. Peewee is the comic relief that is vital to such a somber story. Lobel's character brings up issues of homosexuality in that he is constantly accused of being gay and he has joined the army in order to put an end to such rumors. Stoic Johnson and calmly commanding Lieutenant Carroll and others are characters that readers will find appealing, though potentially two-dimensional.

Told simply and straight forward, Fallen Angels is an easy read for any young adult, most suitable for ages 12 and up. There is some violence, quite a bit of foul language, drug use, and a few sexual references, but not enough to really warrant complete removal from the classroom. There are also some factual errors in terms of weapons and slang that the military would have used at the time, but otherwise it is a realistic depiction of the "hours of boredom" and "seconds of terror" involved in war.

“My father used to call all soldiers angel warriors,” he said. “Because usually they get boys to fight wars. Most of you aren’t old enough to vote yet.”

Recommendations For Teachers

This book is a relatively popular young adult novel that is taught in many classrooms and with good reason because it is great from a historical perspective. It is a great book to use to cover a wide range of topics including general history, warfare, race, friendship, and offers a question of social duty. It questions why people are at war in the first place in Vietnam and goes through the intimate details of these young men's lives as they figure out life. All these themes are interesting for the classroom because joining the military is something many high school kids plan on doing. It is written as a diary of sorts and profiles the specific horrors of the war at Vietnam. Some of the descriptions of what he sees is very raw and disturbing, which shows the unromantic aspect of serving in this war or any war in general.

It is challenged as not being a deep philosophical discussion of Vietnam. This is because the protagonist only does one tour of duty. He experienced a lot of heartache but he only spent a few months in battle which does not give an overall depiction of the entire war. It is also often challenged because of frequent use of vulgar language. It is a war they are living in, and for the situation it does not use vulgar language as often as I would have thought. Nevertheless the use of vulgar language is spread throughout the entire novel and would probably need a permission slip to be read just for that.

Some possible topics this book can cover is the aspect of race. The main characters are all African-American and this novel can bring up discussions about how they got along and helped each other fight during the war and the impact they had on the war. Other possible topics could include the element of guerrilla warfare. The Vietcong used this strategy to their advantage during the war and left a lot of horrible images and deaths to the Americans. The question of social duty during the war can be a great discussion topic. During the novel Perry questions why he is there and why the things that are happening are happening. When asked later why they were in war people gave at least three different explanations. The reasons they even joined the army can be great discussion topics. Perry, for instance, was a very smart kid but could not afford college. He also was not satisfied with his way of life at home, and there is a conflict with his mother. These are all viable topics that can bring up rich discussions that can be relatable to all young adults.

About Walter Dean Myers


Walter Dean Myers was born on August 12, 1937 with the name Walter Milton Myers. He was born in the town of Martinsburg, West Virginia where he was adopted by foster parents Florence and Herbert Dean. Myers later adopted their last name as a middle name for himself. Shortly after adopting Myers, the Dean family moved to Harlem. Myers had a rough childhood growing up during the Depression era. He also suffered from a speech impediment as a child. His teachers, however, were very supportive of him and encouraged Myers in his writing. As he got older, Myers frequently got into trouble in school. Realizing that, as a black teen, he had almost no options to further his educational career, Myers eventually dropped out of school. Seeing it as his only opportunity for success, Myers enlisted in the Army on his seventeenth birthday. After a three year stint in the Military, Myers moved back to New York City. Remembering the advice of a former teacher, who encouraged him to continue writing, no matter what happened to him, Myers began submitting his work to various magazines. In 1968, Myers won a writing contest for his childrens book, Where Does the Day Go? After writing a number of other childrens books, Myers was hired by the Bobbs-Merrill publishing house. During this time he also attended and earned a degree from Empire State College. His first novel, Fast Sam, Cool Clyde and Stuff, was published in 1975 as the first of many teen novels to come. He began publishing a novel every year and eventually won the Coretta Scott King Award for his book, The Young Landlords, in 1979. Myers won countless awards for his work, including the King Award five more times as his career began and continues to flourish.

Other Notable Works

  • Hoops (1981) - The game of basketball symbolizes the game of life for a 17 year old boy.
  • Scorpions (1990) - At only 12 years old, a young boy is asked to lead a gang
  • Monster (1999) - A look into the a murder trial in which the perpetrator is 16-year-old black boy
  • Beast (2003) - An 18 year old black boy from Harlem tries to adjust to prep-school life and his girlfriend's unusual family
  • Sunrise Over Fallujah (2008) - The sequel to Fallen Angels, about the offensive on Fallujah during the Iraq War
  • Dopesick (2009) - After killing a cop, a teen must look into what the future holds for him

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

Interview with Walter Dean Myers about Literature

A Video Representation of Fallen Angels (No Audio)

Additional Resources

Here are some helpful links that will help you teach and better understand this piece of literature and the author
  • Web English Teacher - Has multiple resources on lesson plans and multimedia projects to go along side of Fallen Angels and other works.
  • Interactive University Project - Another teaching resources with discussion, curriculum, and interviews regarding Fallen Angels.
  • Multimedia Project - Here is a comprehensive project that could give a teacher ideas for their own project in the classroom.
  • Walter Dean Myers - Official website of the author with information on his life and works.
  • Interview and Biography - Author Walter Dean Myers talks about his own life and answers questions about multiple works.
  • Vietnam War - Interactive website with countless avenues to explore what happened in the Vietnam War.
  • Vietnam War In Pictures - Pictures taken during the American occupation of Vietnam which could supplement and prompt discussion.
  • Vietnam War In Video - Huge archive of videos shot during the Vietnam war.
  • Why is it Challenged? - Opinion piece that talks about why the book is so frequently challenged.
  • Best War Novels - A list of the 25 top war novels and further reading for students that enjoyed Fallen Angels.

*Made by Zach Harney, Jared Maynard, Kelly Pavlovic, Laura Zeichman, Kelly Butcher,
and Cristina Walcott