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The Man Who Fell From the Sky
By Patrick McCann (reviewer)
The Man Who Fell From The Sky
by Bill Fletcher, Jr.
(Hard Ball Press, 2018)
Two generations of veterans populate the landscape in Bill Fletcher, Jr.'s murder mystery The Man Who Fell From the Sky. It is 1970, and the US war on Vietnam is in its latter stages (midway between the Tet offensive of '68, and the leaving of US troops in '73). Nixon is president.
The novel's setting is not Vietnam, however, but the Cape Verdean community of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Its major characters are WWII and Vietnam War veterans, and their families. Our narrator and main character is David Gomes, a Vietnam-era veteran of Cape Verdean ancestry and investigative reporter for a Cape Cod weekly, the Cape and Islands Gazette.
The book opens with a bang, literally. WWII veteran and construction company owner TJ Smith is shot in his driveway, just after kissing his wife goodbye on the way to work. No one heard the shot from the bushes across the street. What seems a professional "hit" is set to roil Cape Cod, especially its Cape Verdean population.
The Cape Verdean dynamic introduces race into the novel's plot equation. Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were also at war at this time, not with the US, but with their historical colonizer, Portugal. Cape Verde, an island nation archipelago in the central Atlantic Ocean, was uninhabited when the Portuguese landed in 1456. They brought slaves from West Africa to Cape Verde to work their plantations. Many Cape Verdeans, as a result, are of mixed race. The last census of 1950 pegged the Cape Verdean population as 70% mestizo, 28% Black, and 2% white.
Cape Verdean immigration to the United States began around 1790 aboard New England whaling ships. Restrictive legislation enacted in 1920s severely ended a period of significant Cape Verdean immigration. Cape Verdean immigrants strove to establish their own unique ethnic identity separate from Afro-Americans. For many years, authorities classified them ethnically (Portuguese), rather than racially (black). This, along with light skin, allowed Cape Verdeans to assimilate, especially if they "kept to themselves" in southeastern Massachusetts.
Assimilation didn't stop racism and prejudice, and discrimination was part of the Cape Verdean immigrant experience. World War II was a jarring experience for many Cape Verdeans. Few Americans outside southeastern Massachusetts knew of the Cape Verde Islands, and Americans classified those with black ancestry as black. Cape Verdeans went into all-black military units, and (especially those stationed in the southern US) experienced blatant discrimination for the first time. Others successfully "passed," then served in all-white units.
The novel revolves around this issue. Cape Verdean veterans and their families hotly debate whether some Cape Verdeans are trying to deny and escape their blackness. The debate is not just about principals or morality, but of the consequences of such "self-denial." Our plot rushes to an unexpected ending, as reporter Gomes uncovers a dark secret from the past that has come to haunt the present. The book was a pleasure to read from beginning to end!
Patrick McCann was in the USAF 1970-1972, VVAW 1973 – present, and VFP 2003 – present.