Reading recommendations for Memorial Day and beyond
“The American creed is the connective tissue that binds us. It’s a long chain of patriots that come before us and those who will follow us in turn… But those names on that wall, and every other wall and tombstone in America of veterans, is the reason why we’re able to stand here. We can’t kid ourselves about that.”
—From the Remarks by President Biden at an Annual Memorial Day Service (2021)
Each year on this day, we remember those who have given their lives for our country and those who discovered an unexpected void upon their return. In honor of Memorial Day, we’re sharing a list of 12 works each with their own unique stories to tell. Our list is a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and children’s literature.
This list is also available on Bookshop.org, which benefits independent bookstores. We also strongly encourage you to support your local bookstore by ordering through them online directly.
Written by Matthew Masino
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)
Set during the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young private in the Union Army, who abandons his troops and runs from the battle. Haunted by his cowardice, he longs for a “red badge of courage,” a wound, to prove his courage. This novel highlights the inner experience of the private, rather than the war around him. Crane’s novel has been adapted twice for the screen, once in 1951 and again as a made-for-television movie in 1974.
Tracers conceived by John DiFusco, written by the original cast Vincent Caristi, Richard Chaves, John DiFusco, Eric E. Emerson, Rick Gallavan, Merlin Marston, and Harry Stephens with Sheldon Lettich (1985)
Told in a collage of interrelated scenes, Tracers follows the lives of a group of “grunts” as they move from basic training, to combat in Vietnam, and then home and their discovery that they have been forever changed by the horrors of war. The play was created by members of the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theatre Company, a group made up of men who served in Southeast Asia.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012)
Bound by a promise to return home safely, twenty-one-year-old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy do everything to protect each other from the forces that would endanger them. As the line between reality and terror begins to blur, the two begin to realize they’re in a situation neither are prepared for, The Yellow Birds was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award.
Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning by Elliot Ackerman (2019)
Elliot Ackerman is a decorated Marine veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a National Book Award finalist. Combining his recent experiences as a journalist and his past experiences in combat, Ackerman paints a vivid portrait of war and the toll it takes on human lives. Places and Names is both an intensely personal book about the terrible lure of combat, as well as a brilliant meditation on the larger meaning of the past two decades of strife for America, the region and the world. We hosted Ackerman for an author event in July 2019 and you can read a Q&A with him here.
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948)
Norman Mailer’s debut novel depicts the experiences of a platoon during World War II, based largely on his own experiences as a chef in the 112th Cavalry Regiment. The novel tells the story of an army platoon of foot soldiers fighting to keep possession of the fictional island, Anopopei, somewhere in the South Pacific.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut’s most commercially and critically successful novel combines science fiction with semi-autobiographical anti-war writing. The story centers on Billy Pilgrim as he travels back and forth through his own life, from his early years to his time as an American soldier, to the years following World War II. “And so it goes…”
We recently hosted journalist Tom Roston at the AWM where he discussed his book The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five. You can watch that program on YouTube here or listen to a condensed version of it on the AWM Author Talks podcast.
Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Jeff Gottsfeld, illustrated by Matt Tavares (2021)
From the publisher: “With every step, the Tomb Guards pay homage to America’s fallen. Discover their story, and that of the unknown soldiers they honor, through resonant words and illustrations.”
Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front by Mary Jennings Hegar (2017)
On July 29, 2009, Air National Guard Major Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar was shot down during a tour in Afghanistan. Despite being wounded, she saved the life of her crew and their patients. When she returned to American soil, she faced her greatest challenge: eliminating the military’s Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, which kept female armed service members from officially serving in combat roles. This incredible memoir takes readers on a journey through Hegar’s military career and her fight for equality in the armed services.
Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talks of WWII by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila (2005)
From the publisher: “His name wasn’t Chester Nez. That was the English name he was assigned in kindergarten. And in boarding school at Fort Defiance, he was punished for speaking his native language, as the teachers sought to rid him of his culture and traditions…During World War II, the Japanese had managed to crack every code the United States used. But when the Marines turned to its Navajo recruits to develop and implement a secret military language, they created the only unbroken code in modern warfare—and helped assure victory for the United States over Japan in the South Pacific.”
Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees edited by Laren McClung (2017)
Fifty years after the end of the Vietnam War, this anthology of poetry brings together descendants of veterans and refugees—Americans, Vietnamese, Vietnamese Diaspora, Hmong, Austrians, and others—to confront the war and its aftermath.
Eat the Apple by Matt Young (2018)
On a four-day leave from the Iraq War, author Matt Young discovered a wall of “incomprehension” divides him from his loved ones. He tries to connect with his family by telling stories about Iraq, but the true stories don’t seem to connect with them. He decides he needs to make up new stories—ones with bullets and flood where “he gets to feel, for once, like a hero.” Years later, Young would write Eat the Apple in the category of semi-autobiographical testimonies of youth and war. Full of literary forms including dialogues, infographics, and prose, Eat the Apple highlights the absurdity of war.
Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops by Jill Biden, illustrated by Rail Colin (2012)
Inspired by her own granddaughter, Natalie, First Lady Jill Biden shows what it’s like when a parent is at war across the world through the eyes of a child. Though she is proud of her father, there’s nothing that stops young Natalie from wishing that he would come home. While she patiently waits, she works with her grandmother to bake cookies to send to the troops, talks to her dad on the computer, and connects with her friends and family.
From now through September 5, the American Writers Museum is honored to offer free admission to our nation’s active-duty military personnel and their families as part of the Blue Star Museums program this summer. Blue Star Museums is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and Blue Star Families, in collaboration with the Department of Defense and museums across America.
The free admission program is available for those currently serving in the United States Military—Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force, members of the Reserves, National Guard, U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps, NOAA Commissioned Corps, and up to five family members. Qualified members must show a Geneva Convention common access card (CAC), DD Form 1173 ID card (dependent ID), DD Form 1173-1 ID card or the Next Generation Uniformed Services (Real) ID card for free admission. Learn more here.