by Paulette Livers
ISBN-13: 978-1619022430, 304 pp., $18.63 hardback
Paulette Livers's Cementville examines the effects of a faraway war on a small town, and what emerges is the portrait of a community. The novel's catalyst is the tragic loss of life in Cementville, the fictional Kentucky town during the Vietnam War.
The novel opens as eight bodies return home along with a son who received his discharge after a fight with a fellow soldier, a man who returns for his brother's funeral after escaping to Canada and avoiding the war due to his "psychogenic fugue state," and a POW whose injuries are physical as well as psychological. Livers employs vivid language to express the mental state of Lieutenant Harlan O'Brien when he visits the gravestones of the fallen soldiers:
With each chapter narrated from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, Part I of the book introduces the families of Cementville: the violent Ferguson clan, the Slidells, the Juell family, and others. Each family has a rich and interwoven history that ties the characters to the town. Thus, even characters who are not immediate family members of the fallen soldiers are affected by the tragedy. Returning to Cementville for her cousin's funeral, MaLou Goins remembers one of the other dead she knew and "wonders what she might do to make sure it will not ever be as if Boyd Farber never lived."
With the town still grieving those lost in the war, there is first one murder, then another. A sense of violence and unease bleeds into people's lives as they deal with new tragedy—and suspicion—on the heels of the first. With compassion and sincerity, Livers captures an authentic sense of grief as she describes the funeral service for a murdered girl: "Women's cut-off sobs...seizing in their throats, catching and gasping like something being tamped into a soft hole."
Thirteen-year-old Maureen Juell reflects on the events in the small town; the return of the dead soldiers, a lightning strike, an attempted suicide, and two murders in Cementville. "So much had changed in the span of one summer. The world was becoming a place where she might never feel at home again." Through each ordeal, the community draws upon the way of life they know to support one another and deal with their grief, which makes Cementville a kind of Anytown, USA, where American traditions are upheld. In spite of its troubles, Cementville is almost picturesque.
While the town is almost a character in and of itself, war is at the center of the novel as it affects every character and propels the events of the plot. Livers examines the effects of war with intelligence and sensitivity, her language in turns lyrical and reserved. In a moment of poetic and drunken openness, Billy, the discharged soldier, speaks about the war, which is followed by the most poignant scene of the novel. "Those guys who died... They got swallowed up into the belly of some big nasty bird and carried off and brought back all chewed up and spit out. I'm the idiot signed up to go over there and they're the ones in pieces..." As Billy's mother cleans him up and puts him in bed she realizes
Set during a tumultuous time in history with its large cast of characters, Cementville illuminates society's ability to cope with grief and change. While Livers's afterward reveals that the novel is based on an ambush of National Guardsmen from Bardstown, Kentucky—the town which experienced the highest per capita loss of any community in the country during the Vietnam War—the book echoes the feeling of anxiety and pain that exists in every generation that lives through war.—Amanda Kelley