Thursday, July 11, 2013

Reviewing David Litwack

I’m a fan of David Litwack’s writing and I first met David when I reviewed his book There Comes a Prophet. I recently reviewed David’s second book, Along the Watchtower, and was not disappointed.

An IED explosion in Iraq ends the war for Lieutenant Freddie Williams, leaving his mind and body shattered. Once a skilled gamer and expert in virtual and real warfare, he emerges from a medically induced coma to discover he’s inhabiting two separate realities. The first is his waking world of pain, family trials, and remorse for living when his friends are dead. The second is a dark fantasy realm of quests, demons, and magic that Freddie enters when he sleeps. In his dreams, he is Frederick, Prince of Stormwind, who (after his father’s death) must survive horrific visions in order to save his embattled kingdom from the monstrous Horde. While in the conscious world, the severely wounded vet faces a strangely similar and equally perilous mission—a journey along a dark road haunted by demons of guilt and family ghosts that must be put to rest.

This is a trial by ordeal that readers will appreciate on several levels. The outer physical journey to recovery and the inner spiritual road to victory play out with the two worlds merging perfectly. Items from Freddie’s reality become hauntingly evocative icons in his dream world. Author David Litwack has an almost poetic approach to the fantasy level that contrasts sharply with the gritty, real world Freddie struggles (and almost gives up) within. I like this interesting contrast and in a way, the two levels are part of the great game of life that Freddie must win. But will he win, one wonders? His
mind is haunted by demons; his body is struggling from the extent of his injuries. In his reality, he undergoes slow rehabilitation with Becky, his physical therapist. In the dream kingdom, he finds comfort in the royal gardens, where the gentle words of the beautiful gardener, Rebecca, calm the storms in his soul. Can he retrieve his original purpose in life? Will the demons of both worlds win?
The title is part of a poem by Bob Dylan and captures the essence of the story. This is a great read and the author’s skill in building both worlds with gifted imagery becomes apparent as the story draws the reader in. I really enjoyed it. Highly recommended.
The books are so different that I had to delve deeper and find out where David was going with his writing.

Along the Watchtower combines the dark magic of a fantasy world with the grim reality of war trauma. Where did the idea for come from?
I’ve always been fascinated by how we perceive reality. Think of the film Rashomon, the classic exploration of multiple realities, where several witnesses to a crime describe events completely differently, each bringing their own experiences and biases into play. But it’s when we’re ripped from our normal life and placed in extreme circumstances that our reality becomes totally fragmented. Such is the case with hospitals and war. At the same time, I had become engrossed in playing the online fantasy game, World of Warcraft, with my son, an avid player. With me on the east coast on him on the west, he suggested we meet weekly in the fantasy world of Azeroth—an invitation I could hardly resist. For several months, we had a Wednesday evening appointment, where we our avatars would meet in this virtual world and go on quests together. I was struck by how totally immersed I could get into the game, how quickly time passed and the surreal mood of wandering around in strange places, solving riddles and following quests, all to gain magic powers, more powerful weapons, and experience points so I could “level-up”. The fantasy gaming experience has a dream-like quality to it. And I began to wonder: how would this experience affect the dreams of someone whose reality has been fragmented by war, PTSD and traumatic brain injury. These concepts—war, hospitals, and the fantasy world of online gaming—came together in Along the Watchtower.

These are two such different worlds that your main character, Lt. Freddie Williams (or Prince Frederick of Stormwind) inhabit. What kind of research did you do to make both come to life so vividly.
In addition to playing World of Warcraft myself (I only managed to get to level 63) I read several academic books written about the sociology and psychology of role-playing games, where people assume an alternate identity, go places and do things they would never attempt in “normal life.” But it was when I researched the effects of the Iraq and Afghan wars on veterans that the two worlds began to converge. I learned that 30% of our returning veterans are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress. That means that after six months they’re still dealing with flashbacks, dreams, depression and difficulty re-assimilating into their former lives. And that doesn’t account for the many others who were able to adjust on their own, but continued to go through inner turmoil. The war experience changes all of them forever. Many have suicidal thoughts (the suicide rate among war veterans is triple that of the general population. More soldiers have died by their own hand than in the war itself). The unemployment rate of released veterans is triple the national average for that age group. Many struggle with dark thoughts and have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. They also develop an inability to “turn off” the normal flight or fight syndrome, leaving them uncomfortable in crowds, always suspicious and on alert.

But it’s worse than that. One of the ironic successes of these recent wars is the advance in battlefield medical treatment. The result is that far fewer die of serious injuries than in prior wars. The ratio of wounded to dead in WWII was 1.1/1, in Vietnam 1.7/1. In Iraq, it was 7/1. Many more lives are saved, but many more veterans are coming home with debilitating, lifelong injuries. And 68% of all the wounded have some form or brain trauma, penetrating injuries from shrapnel or non-penetrating concussions from the blasts of IEDs.

 I began to research brain injuries. One of the books I read was In an Instant, the story of Bob Woodruff. The brilliant Woodruff had just been named co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight. Then, while embedded with the military in Iraq, an improvised explosive device went off near the tank he was riding in. Bob suffered a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him.
The book describes his recovery and recounts how fragile our brains can be. At one point, the erudite Woodruff could rattle off the names of all prior U.S. presidents, but couldn’t remember the names of his own children.

And I read about post traumatic stress. One of the best books is Achilles in Vietnam. Written by Jonathan Shay, a Vietnam war era PTSD counselor, it compares his clinical notes from actual patients to the text from Homer’s Odyssey, showing the parallels of how we as human beings deal with the trauma of war. The result is an amazing insight into how war fragments our sense of reality and disrupts our moral compass, leaving re-entry into normal life as a brutal and agonizing experience. I picked up this book to learn and ended up both enlightened and deeply moved.

Your prior book, There Comes a Prophet, was a dystopian fantasy. Along the Watchtower seems to cross genres. It’s part fantasy adventure, part love story, part family drama and a chronicle of recovery and personal growth. Was that your intent?

I didn’t write Along the Watchtower to be a polemic on the state of our returning veterans. But the more I found about their situation, the more I discovered the universality of how people are affected in extremis. War, injury, illness, and personal tragedy touch all of us deeply and reveal much about who we are and how we cope with the human condition.

You’ve delved into very different topics in your first two books. What else do you have planned?

I’m in late stage edits with an alternate world story called The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky. It’s about a world divided between the Blessed Lands, a place of the spirit, and the Republic, whose people worship at the altar of reason. A mysterious nine-year-old girl from the Blessed Lands sails into the lives of a troubled couple in the Republic and seems to heal everyone she meets. She reveals nothing about herself, other than to say she’s the daughter of the sea and the sky. But she harbors a secret wound she herself cannot heal. I’m also currently planning what will be a sequel to There Comes a Prophet. I’ve always wondered what happened to Orah and Nathaniel after their world changing heroics and what became of the contemporaries of the keepmasters who had crossed the ocean. Stay tuned.

by Fiona Ingram

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