Scibona’s ‘The Volunteer’ A Lesson in Independence

[photo: Beowulf Sheehan]
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The heart-breaking opening few pages of Cleveland native Salvatore Scibona’s new novel, “The Volunteer,” (Penguin Press) are based on a real-life incident he witnessed years ago while waiting to board a plane in Germany.

“There was a child in line who was crying in an inconsolable, but kind of controlled way.  A half hour later, when I got to the front of the line I asked the man there, ‘what was the matter with that kid?’  He said, ‘no one can figure out what language he’s speaking.’  Right around that moment, the child came back around that concourse with one of the people who worked for the airport.  All the speakers had been blaring for a long time alerting whatever responsible person might be there that this is where the child was and that person was not showing up anywhere.  It became pretty clear to everyone there that someone had abandoned the child at the airport.  I was thunderstruck to my core with this experience.  Also, I walked them down to the end of the terminal, they went through the security gate and I never saw them again,” Scibona said.

“Everyone who saw that I think probably remembered it.  I felt the strong need to do something with that, so the book in some ways is my way of answering, by going back some 60 years, how that boy got in that spot? Who put him there?” Scibona said.

In “The Volunteer, the writer not only explores what kind of person could abandon a child at an airport, but who raised such a person.  

The answer to that question is Vollie Frade, the main character of “The Volunteer.”   

[photo: Penguin Press]

Frade is the son to rural Iowa parents, born late in life.  As a young adult, on what seems like a lark, he leaves his family behind forever when he enlists in the United States Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam.  Frade finds himself fighting in the battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, a six month siege that later was seen as a turning point in the war.

Scibona’s own father fought in that battle. The writer was fascinated by the fact that his father, like many soldiers, was unaware of the significance of what transpired at Khe Sanh.  Scibona’s dad didn’t learn of the importance of what transpired until years later when he was watching a documentary about the Vietnam War on television.

“The disparity between the truth and immediacy of an eyewitness’ experience on the one hand, and what history will later tell us it all meant on the other hand, just seemed to me immensely powerful and important to understand. Our ignorance of our own moment is really fascinating. There’s no question about this, 20 years from now people will smack their heads and think, ‘can you imagine all those people in Cleveland in March 2019, they had no idea that this was going to happen, or at that very moment was happening, but were not aware of it?’ That imbalance seems to encapsulate how we all live inside history,” Scibona said.

He  explores that discrepancy as Vollie fights in the war, finds himself in Cambodia and returns to the U.S., where he becomes involved in domestic intelligence as well as a commune in New Mexico. 

Throughout “The Volunteer” Vollie seeks to live life fully, but an early experience convinces him that he can only do that by leaving himself behind. Vollie doesn’t want to disappear or assume another identity, but simply to be no one. In order to achieve that independence, he frequently abandons those around him.

Scibona said this desire is at the center of “The Volunteer.”

“What I wanted to do with this book was live that out. What would it really be like if you were 19 or 20 years old and left everything behind? Then, because it is a novel, what would the consequences of that be? Then, what would the consequences of that be, deep into life?” Scibona said.

As he followed Vollie’s path, Scibona said he learned something he hadn’t considered.

“I made a really startling discovery, when I was well along into the book. The fantasy of independence that you might characterize as wanting to disappear, while going on living, that fantasy of independence has a cost, and other people pay the cost. Your parents and old people who count on you and you don’t show up.  Children, who might not even be your children but for whatever reason have come to trust you and you aren’t there because your independence separates you from people. They have to pay for your independence. It was really startling to discover it,” Scibona said. 

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