The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Right out of high school in 1967, Patrick Seamus Flaherty joins the Marines to fight in Vietnam. Southeast Asia is a far cry from Patrick's Boston roots. "Getting off the plane felt like having an entire offensive line slam into you at once. It was so hot I swear I forgot my own name, and my uniform went from dry to soaked — and I mean, dripping — in maybe a minute. I was still pretty flipped out by the heat, when I suddenly noticed that the place just reeked, too. Man, talk about funk. Smelled like the whole country was one huge, open-air latrine." Writing in the journal his father gave him, Patrick transports his readers to Khe Sanh through the smells, tastes, sounds, horrors, and friendships that are so much of the chaos called war.
Author Ellen Emerson White's interest in this pivotal period in American history and the research she has done for several other books about the war in Southeast Asia both inform and support this novel. "Officially, the battle of Khe Sanh lasted seventy-seven long days. More than 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped in the area during this time frame, and at least 150,000 artillery rounds were fired at the enemy. At that time, it was the most intense aerial bombardment in the history of warfare."
After reading The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty, youngsters get to examine the effects of the Vietnam War stateside as Molly, Patrick's younger sister, shares her fears, pride, and determination to do something to help in the Dear America book Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty. Taken together, these two novels provide today's young readers with a look at American history from two very different vantage points.
"Sometimes I'm really scared. Especially at night alone, or on guard. Or when we go on night ambushes. I'm not sure what's worse — when it's all foggy and you can't see anything, or when it's clear and everything looks like a bunch of enemy soldiers sneaking up on you," writes eighteen-year-old Marine Patrick Flaherty in his journal. It is 1968 in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Patrick has been in-country for less than a month, and his platoon has been assigned to Hill 881 S near the main base. Their job is make sweeps of the area looking for the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) or go on a LP (listening post) to discover enemy activity in time to warn the rest of the base of an attack.
Patrick soon becomes friends with the members of his platoon, especially Hollywood, Professor, and Bebop. He misses his family back in Boston and eagerly awaits the mail, hoping a letter will come for him. He uses his rifle for the first time, and he witnesses a buddy killed in an explosion. Patrick is shocked and stunned and writes, "I never saw anyone die before. I hope like hell I never do again."
Unfortunately, Patrick sees many more Marines die as the NVA attacks both Hill 881 and the main base. Fog cuts visibility to zero, things are chaotic, and Patrick is scared. "More than anything," he writes, "I wanted to run away, or crawl into a hole." But he grabs his rifle and fires in the general direction up ahead, hoping to hit the enemy and not his own men.
The NVA continue to attack, and many lives are lost. Morale is low. As Patrick says, "The mood on the hill is pretty dark lately. Too much shelling, too many mortar attacks, too many casualties. Not enough food, water, and mail. Nothing new there, but after a while, it really gets to you."
Finally, after many weeks, the U.S. Army comes in and "rescues" the Marines. They take the hill and raise the American flag. Patrick and the rest of his company are airlifted to Quang Tri, a "huge — and really safe — base," where they enjoy good food, showers, clean uniforms, and a comfortable place to sleep.
Three days later, Patrick wakes up in a hospital in Quang Tri, severely wounded and unaware of how he got there. He soon finds out that his tent took a direct hit from a rocket and that six Marines were killed, including his best buddy, Bebop. Patrick is to be sent back to the States, but at the moment, he doesn't care. All he can think of is Bebop, and he ends his journal with these words, "I'm going home. The best friend I've ever had isn't. What else is there to say?"
Thinking About the Book
- Who gave Patrick his journal? Why was Patrick asked to pretend that his sister, Molly, might read his journal someday?
- All of the guys in Patrick's platoon have nicknames. Patrick is called "boot," "newby," "potato head," and "Mick." Why is he called these names? How does he get his final nickname "Mighty Mouse?"
- Who is the first of Patrick's platoon to die? How does it happen? How does Patrick react?
- Several times in his journal, (February 8th, February 27th) Patrick refers to the politicians and generals back in the States who are running the war. What does Patrick think of them? Why does he feel that way?
- Now that you have seen war through Patrick's journal, get each member of your discussion group to make a list of three words that best describe war. Share those answers. What words were most frequently mentioned? Why?
- In his journal entry for February 14th, Patrick writes, "I don't want to make any more friends." Why does Patrick come to this conclusion?
- Things can get pretty grim in the war zone. What are some of the things members of Patrick's platoon do to keep their spirits up?
- Patrick's journal is filled with abbreviations. Soldiers often talk in this alphabet shorthand. Provide a definition for each of these:LP WIA FO NVA LT CP KIA PX OP LZ DMZ
- What was the best part of The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty? Explain.
- On April 14th, Patrick ends his journal entry with this: "If you really thought about it, this war could make you completely crazy." What are some of the reasons Patrick feels this way?
- If you could ask the author of Patrick's journal, Ellen Emerson White, one question about this book, what would that question be?
- The Historical Note in the back of Patrick's journal ends this way. "One of the most well-known statements about the Vietnam War came from an American officer who said, 'we had to destroy the village in order to save it.' The world is undeniably a complicated place, with conflicts arising in many countries, for many different reasons. With any luck, in the future, the United States will be able to figure out a way to simply help save all of the villages, including our own, without destroying them." In your group, discuss whether or not you think the United States has now figured out a way to save all of the villages.
- Patrick and his fellow Marines are always hoping for mail from family and friends and especially care packages filled with special things from home. Pretend you are in Vietnam with Patrick. Make a list of the things you'd like sent to you from home in your first care package. Write a letter to a family member or friend explaining why these specific things are what you most want.
- Soldiers love to complain — especially about food. Patrick mentions a lousy breakfast of powdered eggs. Have a taste test in your group. Make scrambled eggs with real eggs and make another batch with powdered eggs. See which eggs each person prefers. Could they distinguish between powdered and real?
- Patrick writes that one of the soldier's favorite songs is "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" by Eric Burdon and the Animals. You can find the lyrics to this song at the Blues for Peace website. Why was this song so popular with troops during the Vietnam War?
- We know from the book's epilogue that Patrick made a promise he kept all of his life. Every single day he devoted some time to listening to the music of jazz greats such as John Coltrane. Listen to some Coltrane music. Why do you think Bebop loved it so much? How does the music make you feel? You can see and hear John Coltrane perform his music on this website.
- When Patrick arrives in-country, a Marine greets him with, "Semper fi, man." Find out what this Marine motto means on the U.S. Marine Corps website. Read the companion book to Patrick's story, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty in the Dear America series (Scholastic, 2002). Compare Patrick's feelings about the war with those of his sister Molly. How are the two stories alike? How are they different? Which did you enjoy more? Why?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.