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The Father of All Things:
A Marine, His Son, and the
Legacy of Vietnam
by Tom Bissell
Pantheon, USA

Judges' Citation: Traveling in Vietnam with his father, who had fought in that country as a Marine captain, Tom Bissell examines how his family's past is intertwined with that of the Vietnam War. Skillfully blending military history with his father's memories, Bissell provides a picture of Vietnam that is harrowing, beautiful, and at times surprisingly funny. This book illuminates a country, its war, and those who fought on both sides in a way that makes vivid, moving and essential reading.

Book Description:

In April 1975, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, John Bissell, a former Marine officer living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was glued to his television. Struggling to save his marriage, raise his sons, and live with his memories of the war in Vietnam, Bissell found himself racked with anguish and horror as his country abandoned a cause for which so many of his friends had died.

Opening with a gripping account of the chaotic and brutal last month of the war, The Father of All Things is Tom Bissell’s powerful reckoning with the Vietnam War and its impact on his father, his country, and Vietnam itself. Through him we learn what it was like to grow up with a gruff but oddly tender veteran father who would wake his children in the middle of the night when the memories got too painful. Bissell also explores the many debates about the war, from whether it was winnable to Ho Chi Minh’s motivations to why America’s leaders lied so often. Above all, he shows how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than thirty years later.

At the heart of this book is John and Tom Bissell’s unforgettable journey back to Vietnam. As they travel the country and talk to Vietnamese veterans, we relive the war as John Bissell experienced it, visit the site of his near-fatal wounding, and hear him explain how Vietnam shaped him and so many of his generation.

This is the first major book about the war by an author who grew up after the fall of Saigon. It is a fascinating, all-too-relevant work about the American character–and about war itself. It is also a wise and moving book about fathers, sons, and the universal desire to understand who our parents were before they became our parents. (Source:

Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg, and a contributing editor to Harper's and the Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2006 he was awarded the Rome Fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his work has been selected several times by The Best American Short Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Science Writing series. He lives in Rome.


"Powerful. . .eloquent and in-depth. . . The Father of All Things is a one-of-a-kind accomplishment that provides ample evidence of the long-lasting impact of the Vietnam War among the families of the 2.8 million Americans who took part in it.” —Washington Post Book World

“A fresh and comprehensive look at the Vietnam era. . .The reader desperately wishes to look away from the heatbreaking barrative of death and destruction, but Bissell’s powerful writing forces one to open one’s eyes and take in the enormity of the moral abyss.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“There is something fresh–and often raw, funny and enlightening–in [Bissell’s] take on this well-parsed topic.” —Time Out New York

“Beautifully written. . .Tom Bissell is superb. His description of today’s Vietnam are breathtaking and deep, written with a novelist’s flair of giving life to the inanimate and the obscure.” —Los Angeles Times

“Haunting. . .emotionally powerful. . . Combines the virtues of distance and immediacy — the cool perspective that comes from investigating a war that was pretty much over before the author was born and the searing immediacy of being raised by a troubled veteran of that lost war. . .Supple, complex and a relief from the most recent waves of books about Vietnam. . .Bissell brings a luminous prose style and, perhaps more important, a clear, fresh eye to events that many of us have allowed to slip into the infuriatingly painful past." — The New York Times Book Review

“Bissell revisits the much-trodden territory of the Vietnam War to offer a fresh perspective: that of the adult children of the war’s veterans… This humorous memoir, travelogue, and accessible history — the author’s most ambitious book  confirms Bissell’s status as a rising star of American literature.” — Publisher’s Weekly


Read a review of The Father of All Things in WaterBridge Review.

Read a 2003 interview with Tom Bissell on Abolute Write.

Tom Bissell is not the first "Peace Corps Writer" to be shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize, our 2001 nonfiction winner Peter Hessler's book River Town was based on his experiences in the Peace Corps in China. Bissell's earlier book Chasing the Sea was based on his Peace Corps experience in Uzbekistan.  Check out other Peace Corps Writers' stories on their website.

Author photo by Joe Pacheco.





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