There are a lot of terrible things occurring in the world today, but Marian Palaia’s novel “The Given World” takes readers back to the time of the draft, drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll—the time in American history surrounding the Vietnam War.

Although the main character, Riley, does not go to war herself, this young girl from Montana is personally affected by the war at the age of 13 when her family is told her older brother Mick has been lost in the tunnels in Vietnam, and from that point on, Riley struggles with finding herself and her lost brother, because Mick was the most important person in her life. Mick taught her everything, so without him, Riley was lost.

Marian Palaia

Before Mick goes to college and is drafted, there is a scene that includes a funny conversation between Mick and Riley in which readers learn about the relationship between the siblings:

“I didn’t move. I sniffed the air, and it smelled like cow farts. I said so. Mick said, ‘What smells like cow farts?’

‘The world.’
‘Probably not,’ he said. ‘Probably just Montana.’

‘Oh…So, does that mean Africa smells like hippo farts?’

‘I doubt it. Hippos fart underwater.’ ”

Growing up on a large farm in Montana and then suddenly being thrown into the world’s problems does not go smoothly for Riley. As she grows up, she becomes cynical and careless. She experiments with drugs, and by the time she graduates high school, she gives birth to a little boy she and her parents call Slim—a name they normally use for the abundant amount of barn cats on the farm. Despite the baby, Riley decides to leave Montana in search for answers to her brother’s disappearance and to figure out her own life.

After driving many miles and making a pit stop in at a gas station where she learns to be a mechanic in order to make enough money to finish her journey, Riley lands on the beaches of California, and she soon finds herself in San Francisco, the place to be in the roaring ’60s and ’70s.

During her journey as a newspaper delivery girl, bartender and babysitter of her older, drug-addicted, Cajun boyfriend, Riley meets many people who teach her about life and the world. In the meantime, Riley’s parents decide to give the baby to its grandfather, a Native American man living on a nearby reservation, because Slim’s father also is thought to be lost in Vietnam.

Riley spends the majority of her time in San Francisco, but after a while she decides to go to the land where her brother last stood. Very few chapters of the book cover her time in Vietnam, but her job as a language teacher and the friends she meets at the local watering hole are introduced. With no leads on her brother, however, Riley returns to San Francisco, and after receiving a letter about her father’s failing health, she returns to Montana.

Riley’s life goes from good to bad in a matter of seconds, and it takes her approximately 20 years after she leaves home in order to figure out that home is the best place for her to figure out who she is and what she wants. But have no fear, this book actually ends in a happy manner.

I could honestly see a professor assigning this book for a literature class due to the deep meaning and events that take place. But then again, this is a great book for the soul—for someone who may be struggling with life. Even though it is quite short, it took me just as long to read it as the last book I read because of the wisdom the book holds and the unique way the narrator describes life in the’60s and ’70s. Some parts are kind of boring, but I always knew something important would be learned from those parts, and I was never wrong.

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