Five-term congressman, film director, and bestselling author Robert J. Mrazek will be presenting three book talks this month to discuss his coming-of-age-tale set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, And the Sparrow Fell. Mrazek, a Cornell alum and Ithaca resident, will discuss his new novel, a vivid and urgent story in which many of the characters and events are informed by his own personal experiences, particularly his time at Cornell University. Ithaca landmarks such as the State Theater, Fall Creek, and the Chapter House are featured throughout the book.
Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to hear Robert Mrazek speak locally in Ithaca. He will be discussing his new book at the following times and locations:
- Thursday, November 2nd at 5:30 p.m. at Buffalo Street Books
- Saturday, November 11th at 2:00 p.m. at the History Center in Tompkins County
- Saturday, November 18th at 2:00 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Ithaca
We do hope you can attend one of these events.
Born November 6, 1945, in Newport, RI, Robert Jan Mrazek grew up in Huntington, Long Island, New York. He graduated from Cornell University in 1967 and then joined the US Navy. Following his discharge, Mrazek spent 1969-1971 as an aide to US Senator Vance Hartke (D-Indiana). In 1975, he was elected to the Legislature of Suffolk County and became its minority leader, serving through 1982.
Serving five terms in the U.S. Congress, Mrazek wrote several pieces of landmark legislation, among them a law to preserve 3,000,000 acres of old-growth forest in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and a bill to significantly hamper US military intervention in Nicaragua. He co-wrote a law to protect the Manassas Civil War battlefield from being bulldozed into a corporate mall. Mrazek also authored the Amerasian Homecoming Act that brought home to the USA nineteen thousand children of American military personnel who had served in Vietnam. Over the objections of Hollywood studios, he wrote the National Film Preservation Act, which established the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress to protect films of cultural importance.
After Mrazek retired from politics in 1993, he turned to writing. He is the author of ten books, including two award-winning nonfiction works and seven novels, the latest being The Bone Hunters and Valhalla. He also wrote and co-directed the 2016 film The Congressman. He and his wife live in upstate NY and Maine.
Q & A WITH ROBERT J. MRAZEK
Q: How did your experience during the Vietnam War inform And the Sparrow Fell?
An accident during my training at Officer Candidate School left me blinded in my right eye and I spent two months in Newport Naval Hospital. At that time, the wards were filled with combat marines who had been badly wounded in Vietnam. Many of them were not only dealing with terrible physical injuries but also psychic wounds after what they had seen and done. For the first time I began to understand the human cost of the war and what a hollow fraud it was. I came out of the service very angry. That anger fueled a long detour into politics and away from the writing career I was hoping to pursue before Vietnam.
Q: Rick Ledbetter, the main character in your book, is a misguided young man who wants to go to war to become a hero, like his father. Is his story similar to your own?
My father was nothing like Travis Ledbetter, the father of Rick and Tom in my novel. I come from a military family in which my father and all my uncles served in World War II. None of them talked about their combat experiences but they had all been proud to serve. As a young man I was drawn to the hero worship of their generation and, like Henry Fleming in Red Badge of Courage, wondered what war was like. As a teenager, I was particularly drawn to the heroism of President Kennedy in PT 109, and it was a factor in my seeking to join the swift boat program.
Q: What lessons can we take today from the war in Vietnam?
It seems like ancient history now, although it’s only been fifty years. It was a time which many people my age would rather forget. We all had to make choices back then. Some of us made choices we have been ashamed of for the rest of their lives. That war divided a lot of families. It divided the whole country. The novelist John Updike once called the sixties a slum of a decade. In many ways it was.
For the first few years of the war, few Americans raised serious objections to what we were doing over there. If you were drafted, you went, served your thirteen month tour, and hopefully came home. The thing was that if you could afford to go to college, you could avoid the draft. As a result, attendance at college shot up fast, and the war was principally fought by southern boys, poor kids from the big cities, farm boys, and blue collar kids. They didn’t protest. They just went.
It wasn’t until the graduate school deferment was ended that opposition really began to mount. By 1967, demonstrations against the war had engulfed nearly every college campus in the country.
Eventually, the Vietnam War engaged just about every young person, the boys who went over to fight it, the boys who tried every means to avoid it, and the ones who fought against it.
Q: Do you think too many young people join the military today for the wrong reasons?
I have no idea how many young people today enlist in the military for the wrong reasons. Many volunteer because they want to serve their country, others because of economic hardship.
Q: Your son enlisted during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Did you try to talk him out of it?
It was quite ironic to me that after spending a lot of years in Congress trying to prevent another war built on a lie like Vietnam, my son volunteered after September 11, 2001. “Dad, they attacked our country,” he said. I remember telling him that there was no way to know how things were going to turn out and that he shouldn’t make the decision right away. He ended up going to Iraq, another war built on a lie. I think the nobility of young people to want to serve is too often taken advantage of by arrogant men in Washington, most of whom have never served. My son’s experiences spurred me to finish this book that I started writing fifty years ago in a military hospital.
Q: Your book is also about the toll war takes on those on the battlefield and those at home. What’s the price we pay as individuals, families, and as a country?
Erich Maria Remarque once wrote, “The history of mankind is written in blood and tears, and among the thousands of bloodstained statues of the past, only a few ever wore the silver halo of kindness.”
The fifteen months my son spent as an officer at a forward operating base near Karbala in Iraq were the longest and most stressful of my life. He lost a number of friends to IED explosions and betrayal, including a young man who reported to him who was kidnapped with three others in the unit, tortured and murdered. My son called me only once during his deployment and it was to ask me to call the father of this boy, who lived ten miles away from us to tell him how much my son and his comrades had liked and respected him. A very hard call to make to a father just experiencing the news of his loss.
I remember silently vowing that if my son was killed over there, I would seek personal vengeance against the men who had orchestrated this obscenity. Everyone who served with my son was affected by what happened to them. I can only imagine the lifelong pain and loss of the parents who lost their children.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from And the Sparrow Fell? Why is the title significant?
My hope is that this book finds relevance with the generations of Americans who have been born since the Vietnam War and have no direct awareness of how it changed our country, losing 58,000 young Americans, officially claiming to have killed millions of Vietnamese, spraying that country with Agent Orange poison, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the process, all due to the arrogance and stupidity of the “Best and the Brightest.”
I also hope the novel transcends the Vietnam War and speaks to all wars that have no moral purpose or necessary foundation.
The title relates to the bible passage that God sees and provides grace to even the lowliest sparrow when it falls. In some ways this is a novel about religious faith. Religion has been used as a tool to fight many wars through the centuries and that continues today. The message of Jesus Christ has been totally corrupted by the war makers. Tom Ledbetter follows the true message of Jesus to his inevitable end in the novel.
Q: In Tom Ledbetter, you have created a character who chooses to commit an act that is quite alien to American culture. Do you think readers will understand why he does it?
I certainly hope so. A number of Americans chose to do the same thing during the Vietnam War by essentially offering their lives to try to end it. I have deep admiration for those we send to fight our wars and the sacrifice that this entails. I also respect the moral courage of those who put their bodies on the line to oppose a war that never should have been fought. I knew a young man who rejected conscientious objector status and served a number of years in a federal prison. He was an inspiration for the character of Tom.
Q: Why did you enter politics?
My anger over the Vietnam War led me to go to work in Washington for U.S. Senator Vance Hartke (D-Ind), who had come out against the war in 1965 and was a leader in Congress to bring an end the conflict.
Q: Why did you decide to try to become a novelist?
I began writing stories at the age of ten. I continued to write stories in college and discovered that the creative writing and English were my favorite courses in college. When I left Congress I committed myself to trying to succeed with my original passion. It was a bumpy road. My first two novels brought me a fine literary agent but both novels were rejected by major publishers. My third novel won the Michael Shaara Prize for best Civil War novel of 1999, and I have never looked back.
Q: You grew up on the north shore of Long Island, New York, where you set much of your story. What significance does “place” play in your life and your writing?
Huntington was a wonderful place to grow up in the 1950’s. Although my parents had no personal wealth, a lot of kids from different backgrounds came together in our public schools and I was introduced to wealthy families that lived on estates like the Ledbetters in the novel. I later met many more of them representing the “Gold Coast” in Congress. I like to think that the book captures the place I chose to write about as it was in those turbulent days.
Q: Are there particular kinds of stories you’re drawn to?
I’m drawn to books and films in which the principal characters face tests of conscience and character, and which then explore how the characters respond when faced with potentially life-altering challenges.
Q: Which novels have had the most impact on you as a writer?
My writing style has been most influenced by the prolific author John D. MacDonald, who had an incredible capacity for creating even marginal characters with vivid word pictures that make you feel you have known them all their lives in well-plotted stories that draw you in and are always very satisfying. I have reread most of them numerous times.
I have also been influenced by Erich Maria Remarque, particularly his refugee novels like “Arch of Triumph.” I very much enjoy re-reading the novels of Charlotte Bronte, C.S. Forester, John Masters, Pearl Buck, Lionel Davidson, Nevile Shute, Nicholas Monsarrat, Hemingway, and Raymond Chandler, always greeting them like old friends.