Ambush by Donna Tartt, 2005
The magic trick:
The war game the children play throughout the story
Almost a decade before Tartt was winning Dickens comparisons with her novel, The Goldfinch, she was executing a similar blend of humor, pathos and plot in stories like “Ambush.” The memorable thing here for me is the story’s central activity – the game the two children play, reenacting the Vietnam War heroism and death of Tim’s father. It’s heartbreaking to see two elementary-aged children trying to process such a tragic event. Like the best Dickensian set pieces, the soldier game registers in the reader’s mind immediately as both a memorable part of the narrative and a powerful symbol. And that’s quite a trick on Tartt’s part.
“See, my dad was trying to chase down this Vietnamese that shot his friend,” said Tim. “And then the Vietnamese killed him, too. I can act it out for you if you want. I’ll be my dad and you be his buddy. OK. Here we are in the jungle.” He walked away a few steps, and then looked back at me. “You’re walking with me. Keep up. We can’t get separated.”
“What’s my name?”
“Hank,” he said, with gratifying swiftness. “Hank Madigan. All right, here we go. We’re walking down the path towards camp, we’re talking, OK?”
“OK,” I said. I caught up with him, and together we crept – heads down, a pair of cautious infantrymen – towards a tangle of shrubbery at the edge of his grandmother’s yard. He’d said we were supposed to be talking, and I wondered if maybe I should ask something soldierly (“How far to camp, sir?”) but Tim had such a grim, determined look on his face that I was slightly afraid to say anything at all, even in character. He ploughed straight ahead, towards the shrubbery, while I kept my eyes on the side of his face.
“Now – all of a sudden, these shots come out the jungle, eck eck eck BOOM. You’re dead,” he said, after a moment or two when I still stood looking at him.
Obediently I clutched my chest and crumpled to the grass. Tim – gratifyingly – dropped to his knees beside me and began to shake my shoulders.