Vietnam chronicler Frances FitzGerald to talk about writing in a man's world

Writing About War panel at Milford Readers and Writers Festival will also feature veteran Iraq veteran Phil Klay and West Point novelist Lucian Truscott IV

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  • Frances FitzGerald

Books by Frances FitzGerald

Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972, Little, Brown & Co.)
America Revised: History School Books in Twentieth Century (1979, Little, Brown & Co.)
Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemorary Cultures, (1986, Simon & Schuster)
Way Out there in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, (2000, Simon & Schuster)
Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth, with Mary Cross, (2001 Bullfinch)

By Marilyn Rosenthal

— The military officers looked at her askance. One made her walk through two feet of mud to get to his vehicle.

“I think my dress offended his machismo,” said Frances ("Frankie") FitzGerald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who will appear on the Writing About War panel of next month's Milford Readers and Writers Festival.

The other soldiers gave her a hard time, too. She quickly reverted to slacks. FitzGerald lived in a man’s world, and managed to do so with great aplomb.

Her seminal book on Vietnam, "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972)," received the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize for history. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote, “If Americans read only one book to understand what we have done to the Vietnamese and to ourselves, let it be this one.”

"Fire in the Lake" is still revered today as the most comprehensive treatise on the war.

FitzGerald was a tourist in Thailand at the beginning of the war. Her boundless curiosity brought her to Vietnam. She ended up mostly in Saigon, the countryside, and central Vietnam. She wrote about politics and culture, and dealt mostly with civilians, U.S. AID officers, and the like.

When she first arrived in country, an American anthropologist told her to wear dresses, because that’s what the Vietnamese expected of Western women. FitzGerald figured the Vietnamese in the countryside didn’t really care about what anyone wore in the midst of a major war, but she complied.

Although a journalist, she was not on staff of any major paper. She wrote for whoever wanted her stories — the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Village Voice, and The Atlantic, among other publications.

FitzGerald wrote a number of books after "Fire in the Lake." She's an historian, and her scholarship has been widely lauded, but she’s not an academic. (See sidebar for a list of her titles.)

'The Evangelicals'Her most recent book, "The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America," was published last year. Once again, she became fascinated with her chosen subject and delved deeply into it. It won the National Book Critics Circle, which called it "a comprehensive look at the history of the Evangelical movement, its central figures, and its long-reaching influence upon American history, politics, and culture."

The New York Times Book Review said “it’s a page turner: FitzGerald is a great writer capable of keeping a sprawling narrative on point.”

The American Scholar said, “FitzGerald’s brilliant book could not have been more timely, more well-researched, more well written, or more necessary.”

FitzGerald is currently submerging herself in reading a wide range of topics, from Erasmus and Martin Luther, to contemporary politics, to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s "The Bully Pulpit." She’s proving the point that good writers also make good readers.

Writing About War panelFitzGerald, whose knowledge of the Vietnamese war, the country, and its people is as broad as it is deep, will be talking to two men who have served in the military and in war. She will share the stage with Phil Klay, a marine who served in Iraq for 13 months and won the National Book Award for his short story collection, "Redeployment," based on his experiences. Lucian Truscott IV, author of the acclaimed novel "Dress Grey" about his time at West Point, will moderate the panel.

And although FitzGerald wasn’t on the front lines in war, she was at the head of a vanguard.

The Writing About War panel will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Milford Theatre, 114 East Catherine St., Milford.

Early passes for the Milford Reader and Writers Festival, Sept. 28-30, are now on sale. For more information visit

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