In Along the Watchtower, David Litwack takes a poetic approach to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and healing. LT Freddie Williams is a returning Iraq War vet, gravely injured both mentally and physically, and we follow his journey back to health.
The twist that Litwack adds to the plot is a parallel story about Prince Frederick, Dauphin of Stormwind. Frederick’s father, the king, has just passed and he must undergo a series of tests to show he is worthy to assume the crown. Every sunrise and sunset for thirty days, he must ascend to the watchtower and stare into a colored wheel that causes him to dream. In the waking hours, he is tested by the demon horde waiting to take over the castle. If he is successful, the kingdom is saved for the length of his reign. If not, the castle will be overrun by demons and all is lost.
In many ways, this is a story about pressure, the pressure we put on ourselves and the pressure of past traumas we bottle up inside ourselves. Freddie is a flawed hero, saddled with guilt from losing his comrades in Iraq and from losing his family members one by one. Back in the safety of the US, he still scans for suspicious packages that might be IEDs and watches out for snipers. In Iraq, his escape was playing World of Warcraft with his squad, and this becomes the genesis for the dream world of Stormwind. Similar to The Wizard of Oz, you start to recognize the parallel characters between Stormwind and the VA hospital in West Roxbury, MA.
Litwack does a masterful job of shifting between the two worlds and balancing the story lines. His description is rich and lyrical, especially in the dream world, and he paints a cast of fully fleshed, believable characters in the real world. He ends up with genre mash-up of military fiction and high fantasy with a love story on the side. But in the end, the story is really about Freddie’s choice for the future and his personal struggle with survivor’s guilt. As Freddie says:
“What if we’re each born with a certain amount of happiness, like sand in an hourglass? And once the sand runs out. That’s it. What if I drew the short straw, too few grains, and they all ran out when I was a kid? And that’s all there is.”
LT Freddie Williams and Prince Frederick both make their own choices for the future.