Fallen Angels Still Resonates In High School Classrooms as a Realistic Commentary on War, Camaraderie, and Growing Up

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

"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." (44).

Set during the Vietnam War, Fallen Angels follows the tale of a young man named Richard Perry who, for lack of a better option, becomes a soldier fresh out of high school. Leaving his mother and his younger brother behind in Harlem, he heads off to the jungles of Vietnam. Once there, he forms a camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. Foremost amongst them is Peewee, a high school drop-out from Chicago who's always up for a good joke and stays by Perry's side from the beginning to the end of Perry's time in Vietnam. The men soon find themselves embroiled in war racked with uncertainties and fears. Perry and his comrades find themselves questioning why they are in Vietnam and wondering if the war has ruined them for life in the World should they make it out alive.

The time period of the Vietnam War, the large bulk of which was fought during the latter half of the 1960s, was also a time of social upheaval in the United States. One of the most important events on the home front during this time was the Civil Rights Movement, which sought for an end to discrimination against African Americans. The tensions that sometimes existed because of race are visible in Fallen Angels. Perry and several of his comrades are African American and sometimes have to deal with issues of discrimination, as they do when a new sergeant comes and often gives them the more dangerous positions when they go out on patrol.

The book is an enjoyable read, though it falls a bit short of the work of some other writers who have written about the war in Vietnam: Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Donald Pfarrer, and Phil Caputo. Those four, all veterans of that war, write about it somewhat more authentically than Myers, and with greater nuance. That said, Myers does a very good job avoiding most of the stock characters of lesser war novels, and the dialogue is pretty good, with few exceptions. The African-American dialect is well done and adds a great deal to the authenticity and depth of the characters. The novel is unusual in that it is written from the perspective of a black soldier in a war that saw disproportionately high numbers of black men drafted into the army and dying on the battlefields. That sensibility comes through loud and clear, sounding not paranoid or hyper-sensitive but rather like a rational discourse on a very real injustice with deadly consequences.

We would recommend this book for a high school class, but perhaps some discussion should precede it. A discussion about war and the various attitudes towards it could be useful in preparing students for a view that differs from his own. Conversation exploring reasons why an author might use profanity would be appropriate for the students’ understanding of many novels they will encounter, and help to defuse problems later.

War novels have existed since at least The Iliad, and serve as a mirror to the society it illustrates. Throughout our history, war stories have served to illuminate social problems in a setting that brings tensions quickly to the surface; we can learn a great deal about ourselves by studying them, and Fallen Angels deserves a place in the canon of high school literature.

Recommendations for Teachers

Historical fiction is a genre of writing that not only compliments the history curriculum, but also offers students the opportunity to experience historical events in a more intimate and involved manner. The novel Fallen Angels is a powerful book that tells the story of the Vietnam War through the perspective and experiences of a combat soldier. Walter Dean Myers is an author who uses beautiful detail and realistic language to help students understand and relate to the characters in his story.
While there are several different directions that a teacher may decide to take with this book, numerous themes reoccur and stand out throughout the story. Some key themes a teacher may choose to look at when constructing lesson plans are….

1) Race. While the book does not focus heavily on racial discrimination and racial division, it certainly introduces these ideas. For example, Perry, Jefferson, Peewee, and a lot of the other men the Perry hangs around are black. Perhaps it would be an option to discuss racial segregation in the 1970’s and the advancements that have been made from then to now. Certainly there are still injustices that exist in the world today. This book may be a great tool that will assist in opening up conversations about race. A teacher may question how racial division and discrimination are significant to the literature as well as today’s society.
How does the racial make-up of the squad impact the way the men fought the enemy, and got along with each other? How would it have been different if they all had been black (or white)? What advantages are there to having an integrated army?

2) Fear (making personal connections with the book). Fear is a reoccurring theme in the book Fallen Angels. Perry and many of the other men discuss the fears they have about the war throughout the story. To help students connect to the literature, a teacher may prompt her students to recall a time that they felt fear. Reading becomes much more enjoyable and rewarding when a person is able to connect to the literature. Therefore, it is our job as teachers to help students learn how to form these connections and create their own understanding of a story. By asking students to recall personal experiences and connect their feelings from those experiences to a character, they will be more likely to enjoy and understand the book. Perhaps a teacher may want to ask her students to blog or journal on a daily basis about the book and how it connects to their own life.

3) Teamwork and camaraderie: Fallen Angels is a book about war, risk, and consequence. There a two teams fighting against each other and the consequence of losing is death. Therefore the characters in the book need to work together as a team and look out for one another. The idea of teamwork is a life lesson that students need to learn and excel at in order to be successful. A teacher may find it useful to connect this theme of teamwork to a student’s life. Ask students:

a. Why is it important for Perry and the other soldiers to work as a team and look out for one another?

b. Do they ever lose sight of this? If so, explain how. Are there consequences?
c. Name a time in your life that you were asked to work with a team. In what ways did you excel and in what ways did you slip up?
d. How does your experience compare to Perry’s or any of the other characters' experiences with teamwork?

4) War and Justice:
Does this novel suggest that the war was justified or not? Do the characters’ feelings about it change through the story? How would you have felt about being in Peewee or Perry’s place?

5) Books and censorship: This book has very often been challenged. Why? Would it have been as effective if those objections were omitted from the book? Why does the author use such coarse language? Is this book pro- or anti-war? Is it patriotic to be anti-war?

These are just some of the countless thematic ideas that a teacher may use to teach the book Fallen Angels. A teacher may go as far as connecting the Vietnam War with the current war in Iraq. Too often students are uninformed about the current issues in today’s world. By forming connections and identifying differences between the Vietnam War and now, students may form personal opinions and a deeper understanding of historical patterns. The possibilities of this book are endless. Overall, Fallen Angels is a powerful book to teach in the classroom because of its historical content and compelling themes. We would highly recommend this book to high school teachers. Although we encourage teachers to look into this book, be wary of the language and consider the maturity of the class. There are several cuss words and we would suggest previewing the book before teaching it. At the same time, be mindful of a student's family's military history. Do any students have family in the military? Have any students lost a loved one to war? If this is the case, please do not shy away from the book. Instead, use it as a tool to help other students understand the sacrifiices and bravery of an American soldier. With that in mind, we encourage teachers to consider using this book in the classroom. Overall, the book Fallen Angels opens a door to a compelling and eye-opening reading experience for students.

Some possible project ideas for the book……
1) Make a diary from the perspective of one of the characters
2) Have students blog about reading experiences and connections that they have with the book
3) Generate a debate in the classroom (VC vs. America or however you wish to structure it)
4) Have students create a script from a section of the book and act it out
5) Pull out the crayons and paper and have students illustrate different scenes from the book and share their ideas.
6) Ask students to pick their favorite character and tell the story through that character's mind.

Red Flags: The best war novels are those that portray the conflict in an accurate and authentic way. The Vietnam War was a difficult conflict for many of the young men involved and this is reflected in the way Myers writes his novel. Because of his desire for an authentic voice this novel does have a few things teachers should be aware of before teaching the text. First, there is a variety of inappropriate language used within the text. These include racial and homosexual slurs. Secondly, there are a fair amount of graphic images of people dying that could disturb some students. However, both of these issues reflect the nature of the conflict and are a fairly accurate portrayal of the war itself. Teachers should be prepared to prep the class for these issues and use them as jumping points into the discussion topics highlighted above.

Walter Dean Myers

walter-dean-myers.jpgBorn in August 1937 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Walter Dean Myers was given up for adoption. He was adopted by Herbert Dean, a resident of Harlem. Myers dropped out of school and joined the army on his 17th birthday. This experience was invaluable in his writing of Fallen Angels. Though he was never in Vietnam, an innate understanding of the structure and procedure of the army is readily apparent in his work. After being discharged from the army, he found work in New York City unloading freight and in the post office. He received his first big break after winning a writing contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1969. The piece he submitted would eventually become Where Does the Day Go? His 40 year career still continues strong, receiving awards in 2006 and 2007. Walter Dean Myers currently lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his wife and three children.

This video, entitled CIA and the Vietnam War Declassified, is part one of a History Channel documentary that can be found on Youtube. The video works well as a companion piece with Fallen Angels because this portion of it specifically deals with the Vietcong. It shows their perspective of the conflict and why they fought it. Used in conjunction with photos and other media, it can help portray a different perspective of the Vietcong people than is presented within Fallen Angels.

Additional Resources:

Teaching Ideas
Fallen Angels novel guide- Some good ideas for teaching a unit featuring the novel.
Fallen Angels Q's- Discussion questions about the book from our friends at Sparknotes.
Teaching Fallen Angels- This site explores different ways of teaching the book Fallen Angels. It also offers a list of readings that are similar to this book.
A Lesson Plan- A lesson plan that uses Stephen Crane's stories and poems to explore the Civil War.
Multimedia Project- A multimedia project that could be used while teaching Fallen Angels.

Other Literature
Walter Dean Myers homepage - The official site for information on Walter Dean Myers.
War Novels - Wikipedia article about the history of novels set during combat.
War Literature- A look at the literary world of war in the 20th century from the PBS program Frontline.

Historical Background
History Channel Vietnam Page - This page gives a good overview of the war, its tactics, and its repercussions.
Historical Overview of the Vietnam War- This page points out key happenings during the Vietnam War and points to several of the battles that were fought.
Remembering Vietnam- Among other things, this site contains a collection of writings by Vietnam veterans and their families.

Other Media
BBC pictures of Vietnam The Vietnam war told through pictures
More Pictures of Vietnam Another good site of Vietnam pictures.
Huge Compendium of Vietnam Video A site containing a huge amount of Vietnam Video.

Blowin In The Wind - Bob Dylan

This page was created by: Branden Garner, Adam Kennedy, Elizabeth Longcore, Blaine Sullivan, and Becca Thebo.