War is never pretty, but it is even more difficult when observed through the eyes of a child. In Marcelino Truong’s autobiographical graphic novel “Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63,” we get the firsthand memoirs of a child that grew up during the Vietnam war and was as close to the frontlines as one would want to get. In this very intimate and personal tale, we learn about much more than just history, but the human side of things as Marcelino’s family struggles with the conflict and a mother’s growing bi-polar disorder and anxiety.
Young Marcelino and his family are forced to move in 1961 when his father, a cultural attache to the South Vietnam Embassy in Washington DC, is asked to move back to their homeland to become an interpreter. From the outset, his mother is nervous and rapidly becomes more anxious while the children are oblivious to the poweder keg that is about to explode in Vietnam. After an attack on the city they live in occurs, things turn sour rapidly, and this sheltered Vietnamese-American family now must cope with the uncertainty of war and a mother that has trouble keeping herself together.
Truong adds humanity to a time period where humanity was certainly lacking. Not only through the personal recollection of his time in a turbulent Vietnam, but in telling the unbiased history of what happened there during this time period. It’s more than a history lesson, as it is a firsthand account of a situation that went from bad to worse, and being physically trapped in a place of conflict with a mother who is emotionally trapped in her mind. The juxtaposition of these stories mirrors a period of national anxiety for Vietnam in upheaval, and a confused America that was divided on what to do overseas.
The artwork by Truong is stark and expressive, using only two colors throughout the book (with the exception of a few full color spreads done in watercolor). The elegant brushwork in the inkwash of his illustrations are deceptively complex, with texture and character in every person, place, and object seen in the book. As much as I loved the art, if I had one nitpick to make it would be the lettering. On pages with less text, there are no problems, but when things get wordy, the legibility becomes difficult and slows down the rhythm of the reader. For me, that meant being unable to sit there and read this book in one sitting, but on the other hand, a story as emotionally taxing as this was probably better handled in multiple sittings.
‘Such a Lovely Little War‘ is a graphic memoir of war seen through a child’s eyes, an adult woman, and the eyes of history. There are a lot of intense moments, as well as some humorous and a few that will make you get a little teary eyed. It’s quite a journey, much like what Marcelino himself went through during this formative time in his life. I would recommend this for teen and up, a great introduction for the young adult into the conflict in Vietnam as well as a riveting story for adults to see the ravages of war on not only the soldiers, but on the civilians that are simply collateral damage. If you are a fan of politically-oriented comics like Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’, then this is line with you and your interests as well.