Summary and book reviews of The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell

The Father of All Things

A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

By Tom Bissell

The Father of All Things
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2007,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2008,
    432 pages.

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Book Summary

In April 1975, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, John Bissell, a former Marine officer living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was glued to his television. Struggling to save his marriage, raise his sons, and live with his memories of the war in Vietnam, Bissell found himself racked with anguish and horror as his country abandoned a cause for which so many of his friends had died.

Opening with a gripping account of the chaotic and brutal last month of the war, The Father of All Things is Tom Bissell’s powerful reckoning with the Vietnam War and its impact on his father, his country, and Vietnam itself. Through him we learn what it was like to grow up with a gruff but oddly tender veteran father who would wake his children in the middle of the night when the memories got too painful. Bissell also explores the many debates about the war, from whether it was winnable to Ho Chi Minh’s motivations to why America’s leaders lied so often. Above all, he shows how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than thirty years later.

At the heart of this book is John and Tom Bissell’s unforgettable journey back to Vietnam. As they travel the country and talk to Vietnamese veterans, we relive the war as John Bissell experienced it, visit the site of his near-fatal wounding, and hear him explain how Vietnam shaped him and so many of his generation.

This is the first major book about the war by an author who grew up after the fall of Saigon. It is a fascinating, all-too-relevant work about the American character–and about war itself. It is also a wise and moving book about fathers, sons, and the universal desire to understand who our parents were before they became our parents.

Chapter One: The Fall

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.
—EXODUS 14:28

I

It would have been spring. The neighborhood yards still yellow and concrete hard, the side panels of the cars you pass on the way home from work spattered with arcing crusts of road salt, the big oaks and elms that loom along Lake Shore Drive throwing down long pale rows of shadow. These trees are covered with stony gray bark, their naked branches black lightning against a deepening indigo sky. Everywhere winter’s grim spell still holds.

A Midwestern spring at the Forty-sixth Parallel is a different sort of season than the spring one finds even five degrees lower, in Milwaukee, say, or Chicago. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula spring never truly arrives. It passes through for a few weeks, shrinks and smoothens the filthy fringes of snow that sit packed against the ...

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Reviews

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The Father of All Things is an angry, heartfelt, deeply personal, sometimes darkly funny book that explores the war that shattered Bissell's father and in turn ruptured their family. Although occasionally overly-digressive, this is a powerful book that is likely to add value to those who are very familiar with the period, through reading about it, living through it, or both; and be especially enlightening to those who open its pages with little prior knowledge.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (1224 words).

Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

A terrific writer with an eccentric vocabulary and dark wit, Bissell Jr. lacks only a feel for the proper dimensions of the short, personal story he had to tell. B

The Los Angeles Times - Paul McLeary

Bissell's strength isn't in writing history, as his extended digressions on the war, although well-researched, show. At times these historical flights seem forced — a way, one suspects, to compensate for a lack of narrative; but as the book goes on, they serve a crucial purpose, intended or not ... The book, therefore, serves as an excellent thumbnail sketch of the major players and significant dates that define the conflict but have been ignored in popular retellings of the war. In this way, John Bissell's role in the great, impersonal sweep of history is placed in context .... As a travel writer, however, Tom Bissell is superb. His descriptions of today's Vietnam are breathtaking and deep, written with a novelist's flair for giving life to the inanimate and the obscure.

Seattle Times - Michael Upchurch

Bissell's powers of description, whether he's evoking ragged states of mind or the "lush green tunnels" of rural Vietnam's highway system, are vivid and commanding as well. But the book stands on its portrayal of John Bissell. "War is its own country," his son writes, "and creates its own citizens." The triumph of The Father of All Things is in the way Bissell brings alive — with so much love and uncertainty — one of those citizens.

The New York Times Book Review

Haunting. . .emotionally powerful. . . Combines the virtues of distance and immediacy -- the cool perspective that comes from investigating a war that was pretty much over before the author was born and the searing immediacy of being raised by a troubled veteran of that lost war. . .Supple, complex and a relief from the most recent waves of books about Vietnam. . .Bissell brings a luminous prose style and, perhaps more important, a clear, fresh eye to events that many of us have allowed to slip into the infuriatingly painful past.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This humorous memoir, travelogue and accessible history—the author's most ambitious book—confirms Bissell's status as a rising star of American literature.

Kirkus Review

Starred Review. A penetrating look at the Vietnam conflict. . .Bissell delivers a riveting, you-are-there account of the fall of Saigon. . .Big picture politics take second place to the achingly personal in [this] heartfelt book.

Author Blurb Norman Rush
A permanent contribution to the essential literature of America’s catastrophic misadventure in Vietnam. Bissell has brilliantly combined a deep portrait of his conflicted relationship with his warrior father, a fair-minded but shattering account of the war itself, and a vivid travelogue of present-day Vietnam. In every branch of this endeavor, the bravery of Bissell’s engagement, his intelligence, and his uncanny eye for the conclusive detail are on rich display. This is a triumphant piece of work.

Author Blurb Philip Caputo
In this touching, sometimes comic portrayal of a son’s struggles to understand and cope with a father’s dark experiences in Vietnam, Tom Bissell’s maturing talents are on full display. He shows that wars never end, not only for the warriors but also for their children.

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Beyond the Book

A Short History of Vietnam

Vietnam's history has been one of repeated invasions and resistance (historic maps). For the millennium up to the early 10th century, Vietnam was controlled by the Chinese, until a final rebellion in 938 led to Vietnam achieving independence. Over the following centuries it repelled a number of Chinese invasion attempts, including three during the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1271-1368) while also expanding its own borders substantially south (map).

In the 19th...

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