A Death at Tippitt Pond (A Sweet Iron mystery) will be launched this June, beginning a new chapter in my writing life and a new series involving mystery, history, and genealogy. The main character, Beth Russell, is a historical researcher and genealogist. For reasons I won’t mention—no spoilers—she has been researching the genealogy of the Tippitt family, and she has access to their huge mansion, Tippitt House.
Because the story takes place during the era when I was young, I wanted to include the Vietnam War in my book. It was such a huge presence in our lives.
I have my own memories of that war. Besides the newspaper headlines and stories, I watched the news without end while I was in college and thereafter. Our college campus was also filled with protests, discussions, debates, anger, and loud voices. Once, while on a plane to San Francisco, I encountered soldiers my age who were eager to talk about their time in Vietnam—well, talk about some of their time in Vietnam. And, like many others, I lost friends in that war. 58,000+ American soldiers and an estimated 200,000-250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died.
Because of this, I felt it was important to portray that event in my mystery, a story in the present day, but connected to the past. I created a character named Jeff Tippitt, whose bedroom in Tippitt House was left just as it had been in that time. The reader learns that the young Tippitt heir died in Vietnam, and the sorrow of that death was only part of the tragedy the Tippitt family experienced.
So how to portray a person who isn’t actually alive in the story? Beth Russell opens the door to his bedroom, and it is a time capsule of the past, as well as an indicator of what Jeff was like. She examines a photograph on his desk, a young soldier with a crew cut, not a ponytail. Dressed in a flak jacket with various belts and pockets, he posed in front of a helicopter. The photo was creased in multiple places as if he had carried it in one of those pockets.
“Did he think he was invincible? Did he figure he would come home to his sisters and his parents? Was it an adventure?”
His dog tags, a religious medal, and a cigarette lighter, its inscription rubbed off, lay on the desk with the photograph. How
many times must he have carried these with him, possibly while his helicopter was under attack? Next to the desk was a bookshelf with Life Magazines, their covers filled with peace symbols and photos of soldiers. No Autobiography of Malcom X or Herzog, but a dog-eared copy of Catch-22, a corner turned back, must have been returned with his possessions. So he was a bit of a rebel?
A wooden box, its glass top revealing a flag folded into a triangle, rested on the chest of drawers. One wooden corner held a metal rectangle with Jeff’s name, army unit, and the date and location of his death.
“When his parents and his sisters left the cemetery with this flag, pain and grief must have walked on either side of them. Beth wondered what they thought of him volunteering like that when he was so young. Did they argue with him? Were they proud?”
These brief reminders of a person’s life are enough to bear witness to a war that was raging about the time Beth Russell was born. While she didn’t live through that time, as a researcher she understands how these objects reflect the lives of so many of the young soldiers who were part of that war.
Later, she searches through her genealogy bases and discovers the cold facts that aren’t reflected by those much-loved and carried objects:
Jefferson Webster Tippitt
Born, 5 June 1948 in Sweet Iron, Illinois
Died 6 June 1967 in Ben Suc, Vietnam