Diehl’s return to Wyoming from six years of service to his country – including combat in Iraq – is colored with a dark intent to even the score with his father. But before he can once again embrace his adopted family, including Tony, a ranch hand with a military history of his own, Diehl’s single-minded purpose of revenge against his father precipitates events that turn his life in a direction never envisioned. His comfort through it all, is Jack, a Border Collie who Diehl rescues from certain death; a dog who, perhaps, rescues Diehl from himself.
“Home. For any soldier, that single word became a mantra, repeated thousands of times, enveloping the images, aromas, love, and peace of places and times left behind when duty had called. For Diehl, the word also held the inescapable specter of an inflicted misery, a profound hurt that even the savageness of war had not managed to best.”
Big Diehl: The Road Home by George Seaton is about many things. It is the story of a man’s reckoning with a childhood and adolescence of neglect, abuse and overwhelming pain. It is the story of a soldier’s return from war and the challenges he experiences in attempting to re-integrate into civilian life. It is the story of a man’s search for a sense of belonging and for love. It is also a story about the intersection of people and lives and how life’s chance encounters can alter the direction of a man’s life sometimes putting him in danger, and at other times how the kindness of strangers can help save his life.
Through his exceptional prose and characterisation author George Seaton interweaves all these themes in this novel offering the reader an incredibly soulful story that chronicles Diehl’s journey and his unvarying search for life’s possibilities.
A journey that, upon high school graduation, has Diehl escaping the misery and pain of a Laramie, Wyoming trailer park and his abusive father, leaving behind his lover and first love Joe Tye. The army beckons with possibilities and Diehl enlists. While he waits to report for duty at Fort Polk, Louisiana, he meets Maddie and Chris in Casper, Wyoming, who take Diehl in and along with their ranch hand Tony offer Diehl not only acceptance and friendship but also love and family. During his six years of military service, Diehl is part of the first contingent of soldiers to land in Iraq. His actions in the army see him emerging as a highly respected mentor and leader but his experiences also heavily burden him with the dark aftermath of the horrors and trauma of war.
Diehl’s return to civilian life and the road home are not easy. Before he can get on with his life, Diehl wants justice for the wrongs inflicted upon him as a child. Had it not been for a Border Collie sitting in the middle of the highway that he names Jack, Diehl’s plans would have likely ended in another tragedy. As Diehl continues his journey with his constant companion Jack, a brief encounter with a young woman has him on the run for a crime he did not commit. His adopted family, Maddie, Chris and Tony arrive to help, and in the ensuing upheaval past and present converge as the man that Diehl has always loved above all others, Joe Tye, re-enters his life. And throughout this difficult and often dark journey, Diehl continues to seek out life’s possibilities and a home of his own.
In describing Mr. Seaton’s writing of Diehl’s story what immediately comes to mind is one of sublime fluidity whereby the prose rolls, undulates and curves onto the page effortlessly drawing the reader into the twists and turns of Diehl’s journey, seamlessly alternating between past and present, and gradually revealing plot and sub plots, the character of Big Diehl and the multitude of both occasional and recurring secondary characters.
The narrative is written in the third person and Mr. Seaton ascribes an abundant and intimate voice to Diehl. The character is written with such emotional depth, intelligence and authenticity that he becomes most tactile to the reader. A deeply introspective and honest man that overcomes adversity, despite his past, the horrors of war and the tragedies and injustices that befall upon him, never losing the core of himself, his humanity or his innate ability for compassion and love. By the author’s description, Big Diehl is not a large man in physical stature, nor is he an extraordinary man, and while he is a character that is tangible to the reader, Diehl also emerges as the quintessential fictional hero that is at times larger that life.
“Now, as Diehl accelerated the old Ford past the northernmost expanse of Greeley, Colorado, the flat spread of the high northeastern plains provided witness that he was near, very near his homecoming. He pulled onto the apron, stopped, opened the door, and stepped to the front of the car. He sat on the hood, took off his ball cap. Feeling the ever-present wind from the Rockies was a comfort, carrying with it remembrances of home; both the good and the bad of it. He shook his head, smiled. It had been six years since he had left home at eighteen; years that had seemed an eternity as he became a soldier. They became an even harsher eternity as he had traipsed the full gamut of the particular horror of war in Iraq. Now, as he looked up at the grayed sky, scanned the openness of the land, felt the wind against his face, and smelled the cleanness of the place, it didn’t seem that he’d been gone long at all. Home.”
Mr. Seaton also gives an expansive voice to many of the secondary characters in this story – from Diehl’s father Roy, to Joe, to Joe’s mother Ophelia. Everything, from their rich perspective, the realistic dialogue, to their manner of the vernacular language and idiomatic expression offer the reader an intimate glimpse and understanding of the poverty, oppressiveness, hopelessness and dead end life of the Laramie trailer park that propelled Diehl to escape. The author’s textured descriptions of the land and its people, provide rich imagery and a genuine portrayal of rural and small town life and culture where the High Plains meet the Rockies and where much of Diehl’s story unfolds.
As a reader I’m constantly in search of that one book in whose story I can lose myself. A story in which I willingly let go of the reins of my reality and allow the author to take me on a journey into a world and lives crafted onto the page from the author’s imagination, sensitivities and experiences. Big Diehl: The Road Home by George Seaton is such a book and it is the quality of the writing that makes it so. Prepare to sink into this wonderfully written story, to fall in love with this unforgettable character and to not want to come-up for air until you’ve read all 420 pages. And then prepare to want to read this book all over again.
Simply put – I loved this story, I loved this character, but most of all I love how this man writes.
NOTE: The character Big Diehl first appeared in a short story published by the ezine, Nossa Morte. From there, Mr. Seaton expanded the character’s story into the novella Big Diehl, published by MLR Press as part of its anthology Esprit de Corps. The novella, which covers the period of Diehl’s army service and his tour of duty in Iraq, has been incorporated into the novel Big Diehl: The Road Home. The review of Big Diehl: The Road Home was originally published online at Three Dollar Bill Reviews.