I'm not sure I even planned to read Hero Mama by Karen Spears Zacharias. I read a raving review of it somewhere and decided to order it for a good friend whose father died in Vietnam when he was just a boy. My buddy was leaving for a trip to South America, and I thought I'd give it to him to read on the way. But the book arrived a day after he left . . . so I read it first. This is a wonderful, poignant book. The subtitle is "A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam--and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together." On the day of my tenth birthday (July 25, 1966), a Western Union telegram was sent to Zacharias's mother saying that the day before her husband, David Spears, had died in Vietnam while operating a 105 millimeter howitzer. This is a book of tragedy and loss. Everything changed with the death of her father, leaving her mom a widow with three children. She writes about how it nearly tore the family apart, about how she bore the shame in secret at times because of the hatred expressed toward soldiers who'd served in Vietnam, and about how angry she stayed at her father for dying and at God for letting him die. Nothing in her life was the same again. The ripples of the loss kept spreading in her life. Her mom sought refuge from her pain in alcohol and the arms of other men (loudly in their tiny trailer). Her brother got in trouble with the law and became a pothead. They kept moving from one trailer park to another, from Tennessee to Georgia. Her mom, lost in her own grief, was unable at the most needed times to hold her or tell her she loved her. It's also a book about poverty and prejudice. Trailer parks. Georgia. Late 60s and early 70s. Zacharias writes about not having any friends who still had both parents in their lives. And yet, it's a book about courage and hope. Her mother (the "hero Mama") pressed on for a nursing degree to make sure her three children were provided for. She did her best to keep the family together. And it's a book about community. Zacharias writes about other men and women who became life preservers to her, keeping her from drowning in the circumstances: an uncle, a teacher, a youth minister and pastor. Yes, a Baptist Church in rural Georgia becomes a true point of light in her life. Though her mom doesn't go with her, she is invited to a vacation Bible school and continues attending when she can get there. She finds friends -- true friends who love her no matter what -- and adults who pray for her and care for her. Some of my favorite parts of the book are about her description of the people from the Rose Hill Baptist Church. In one of the best chapters of the book she describes her decision to get an abortion her senior year in high school (which was also my senior year). "I hadn't told Karen anything about the abortion because her friendship was too valuable to me. I figured if her mama knew the mess I'd gotten myself into, she'd forbid Karen from ever hanging out with me again. Donna Mendenhall was a stern mother. She had a conniption fit when she learned that several of us kids in the youth group had been caught toilet-papering Pastor Smitty's yard. Smitty and Betty didn't seem to care; in fact, they had invited us all in for a cola, after we'd cleaned out the trees, of course. But Donna gave Karen and me such a lecture you would've thought we'd stolen a car or held up a 7-Eleven store. "Karen told me she found out about the abortion later, from Beth. She also told me that her mother was angry to arrive at the hospital and discover that I'd been stuck on the maternity ward. Donna, who'd quickly figured out why I was really in the hospital, worried about the emotional impact that would have on me. "She didn't come bearing flowers or candies, but Donna brought me a treasure that night that has lasted me a lifetime--the gift of grace. Her concern for me was only slightly veiled behind her dark eyes. She didn't mention the word abortion. And she didn't scold me for my folly the way she had the night I'd helped trash Pastor Smitty's yard. Instead, she reached out her tiny hand and patted mine. 'We love you, Karen,' she said. "And I knew that she did. I was never afraid of Donna Mendenhall after that visit. I knew that while her expectations for her daughter--for all us kids--were high, ultimately she wanted only what was best for us. Her wanting that for me made me want it for myself." I've wondered how, given all the things her mother did and all the ways she failed to nurture, Zacharias could describe her as a hero. But it's all found here (p. 263): "Forgiveness is something our family has learned to embrace. We've had to."