Category Archives: General Fiction

Gonna Stick My Sword in the Golden Sand

Sergeant Holmen and Sergeant Heald

Sgt Holmen and Sgt Heald 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, I was in transition. I was leaving a line company of infantry in Vietnam where we slept under the stars in the mud and amongst the critters for the life of a LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) that would offer a barracks and hot meals but also hair-raising scouting missions into hostile territory. Even after this lengthy passage of time, I’m not sure of the wisdom of that decision, but it was what it was.

This spring, during a California book tour, I visited my best friend from those long-ago days, and we discovered that time has stood still for our relationship–we jumped straightaway into discussion of religion, politics, sex, and all the philosophical musings and questioning that we first experienced as young men on late nights in the barracks as the sun was setting on the tumultuous sixties.

G-pa Holmen and G-pa Heald

G-pa Holmen and G-pa Heald 2014

A few years ago, I wrote several short stories based upon my army experience–some of you may have read the compilation entitled Prowl— and my recent visit with Gary inspired me to finish that project. Thus, I have edited and revised those stories, woven them together, and added some new material. All this is to say that I am pleased to announce that Gonna Stick My Sword in the Golden Sand: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story has just been released.

The title comes from a stanza of the gospel traditional, Down by the Riverside, with its refrain–“Ain’t gonna study war no more.” I would like to think that there are echoes of earlier classics of war fiction. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Golden Sand recreates the fear of the soldier facing battle; like All Quiet on the Western Front, Golden Sand confronts the banality of war for the weary soldier.

Golden Sand coverGolden Sand is a bold, dark, and intense retelling of the Vietnam experience through the eyes of an army scout, the point man on a camouflaged and face-painted four-man LRRP team inserted by helicopter into remote and unfriendly territory to search for “Charlie,” the North Vietnamese soldiers who travelled the mountain gullies of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Golden Sand is less about patriotism and heroism than about the gut-wrenching reality for the Vietnam combat soldiers who are celebrated for simply doing their best to get by, not as superheroes, but as young men who often acted heroically but sometimes foolishly in circumstances not of their own choosing. One reviewer of an earlier short story commented, “The bond and the folly of immortal combat ring loud and clear from the page, and the story’s told with all the realism, language and pathos of experience.” The mood of Golden Sand is dark and somber rather than triumphalistic: a hauntingly honest and brutally true retelling rather than a glorification of the Vietnam experience.

Others commented after reading the short stories:

Gripping stories, unquestionably authentic, well written.

You read along on everyday books, then open one of these up and its like being smacked in the head. They just open up and tell it to you like it is. I love it.

The tension in the individual stories leaps off the page but the author manages an injection of black humour.

This story is a page-turner, the reader will not be left bored or yawning.

Characters and place come to life with the words, dialog is pitch perfect, and there are haunting comments I’ll remember long after the story’s done.

Click here if you’d like an autographed copy, or go to for either a print paperback or eBook. For $0.99, you can download an individual chapter on Amazon to check it out. Here’s the list of chapter titles:

Eleven Bravo


Here Comes Charlie

Cat Quiet

Whiskey in the Rain

Chasing After Wind

Elijah Fire

Donut Dollies

Down by the Riverside

Chasing After Wind

In the hubbub of news about the capture/kill of Bin Laden, the professional soldiers/sailors that carried out the mission have justifiably received a heap of attention.  The “tip of the tip” of the spear is one characterization I have heard.  “Seal 6” is apparently the name of this elite group of ultra-efficient military men.  Other terms that have been bandied about in the general conversation about the elites of the combat soldier include Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Ops, Special Forces, and more.

This is where the news gets personal, for I was an Army Ranger in Vietnam forty years ago.  Coincidentally, I have recently been working diligently to write short stories based upon my Vietnam experience, so those days and months so long ago have revisited my memory.

Although there are references to Rangers in the colonial wars, Revolutionary War, and Civil War, the first modern use of the term comes from the D Day assault on Normandy.  While waves of combat soldiers waded ashore on the beaches, the Rangers successfully scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc in order to take out an artillery battery that shelled the beaches and the landing craft.  In the Pacific theater, Merrill’s Marauders successfully traversed 1,000 miles of Himalayan mountains and Burmese jungle to slip behind the Japanese lines, and every single member of the unit received a bronze star.

With the outbreak of the Korean conflict, Ranger units were again formed and trained, including the only all-black combat unit in the war.  The Ranger units were used for night raids, remote patrols, and parachute assaults behind enemy lines.  After the end of the Korean conflict, the Rangers were disbanded and did not appear again until Vietnam.

Helicopter over Viet NamRanger units of Vietnam, including my outfit, K Company of the 75th Infantry Regiment, were Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units (LRRP for short).  Recon in remote and hostile territory was the primary mission of our four-man LRRP teams rather than ambush or assault, but we fought when we were discovered, and I was awarded a pair of bronze stars for valor in combat.

Other than the concept of the stiletto–a small, surgical, strike force—my experience was vastly different from the Rangers of today, much less the secretive Seal 6.  Our training, equipment, and level of expertise were Neanderthal by comparison.  While many in my unit had received training at Ranger school at Fort Benning before arriving in Vietnam, nearly all were combat newbies.  I had no specialized training at all, but I was accepted into the Rangers based upon six weeks of combat experience with an infantry company.

An early review of my series of short stories suggests bold, dark, and intense, and I think that is an apt characterization, not only of my writing, but of the Vietnam experience.  This week, the fourth  installment was published, and you may find the eBook entitled Chasing After Wind with the publisher or with, and it treats dark themes of death and fate on the framework of a barracks poker game, the uncontrollable wind, and a malevolent joker in the deck.

Ecclesiastes provides the epigraph and the title:

No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle … all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 8:8 & 1:14

The Muse is Found

Regular readers of this blog may wonder where I’ve been.  Posts have been nearly non-existent recently.  Some have asked, “Have you lost your muse?”

Au contraire!  I have been churning out page after page, but not for this blog.  Since the first of the year, I have penned a pair of short stories, over sixty pages of a sequel to A Wretched Man, and made a good start on a non-fiction piece that grows out of this blog.  More later.

The Woodsman CoverFor those of you who have succumbed to the eBook phenomenon, I’m moving that way myself as an author.  Again, more later.  For now, I have published a short story entitled The Woodsman as an eBook (all formats).  From now until the end of the month, readers of this blog may download the eBook free of charge by using a coupon.  Beginning in April, eBook downloads of The Woodsman will carry a slight charge.

Go here, and enter this coupon number: AD29N.  Of course, you may choose to pay for it as a gesture of support.  I have an ulterior motive in making the eBook free for a short time—I would like feedback.  After you download and read, please offer your comments, here, on the book page, and at Amazon; don’t forget to click on tags at the bottom of the Amazon page.

This short story is unlike this blog—no religious politics–but I hope there’s a bit of creation spirituality.  There’s more than a bit of me and my dad in there based on many days spent amongst the oaks and maples of the Burtrum Hills in central Minnesota.

More blog attention for A Wretched Man

Another review appeared recently on a book blog, and last week I was interviewed on blog talk radio.  Stephanie, at Curling up by the Fire, wrote the following:

Mr. Holmen was able to show Paul’s struggles with his own spiritual self as well as with the political world in this novel, to the point where I felt I was right there along with the people involved.  I felt a connection with the people (I can’t use the word characters as these people were actually alive and existed) and a great empathy for their belief and what they were trying to accomplish, putting themselves in great danger.

The world in Mr. Holmen’s book is also brought vividly to life and I enjoyed reading about the daily life of the people involved in the New Testament.  Even simple things like what they ate for breakfast and descriptions of the homes, boats, clothing, jobs, and traditions were very enjoyable.  I loved learning about things like where and how they slept, what they used to transport materials, what was used for currency in different parts of the Roman world; it was all so fascinating.  It added a rich element to Paul’s life that made it so much easier to understand and made the characters so much more real.

And here’s a link to the half hour radio interview conducted by Cyrus Webb on Conversations Live!

Flattering reviews

Two new reviews of my novel, A Wretched Man, came in over the weekend.  Both offered 5 star ratings.  Here are snippets and links.

Leola Harris, aka “Tea”, offered this from “I Love to Read”:

a stupendous novel about Paul, The Apostle …The book is beautifully written full of descriptions of the Holy Land’s landscape and Agriculture … made me read further, stop reading, begin reading and so on throughout the book. My mind was being cleared for new knowledge vs. old knowledge …I questioned and examined myself … I questioned, I discovered, I began to see with a better lighting … birthed in me a desire to know more.

Jess, a student in New York, writes at Spine Creases.  After first posting a teaser comment on Goodreads, calling the book “A phenomenal novel”, Jess wrote the following:

It is well-researched; Holmen clearly has a solid background in early Christianity and religious history. It is also well-written … I felt that I had a more personalized understanding of who Paul was … [Holmen] presents Paul as human. Paul is as subject to human desires, human complexities, and human experiences as the rest of us. The best kind of book, in my opinion, is one that prompts you to think more, to pursue more knowledge. This book definitely incited that curiosity in me. (emphasis added)

I found this book to actually be quite a good accompaniment to my studies of Jesus as a social revolutionary, upsetting the status quo. I felt like I gleaned a new understanding of the early Judeo-Christian world, which is pretty astounding after having taken four years of academic religion classes.

Thanks to the reviewers for their generous comments.

We get letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters

Perry ComoIs it a mixed metaphor to apply Perry Como’s jingle from the fifties to emails?  Who is Perry Como you ask?  Whatever.

My novel, A Wretched Man, has been out for four months, and I’m beginning to accumulate reader’s comments.  One reader even called my cell phone one morning to suggest he had just finished the book at his lake cabin, and he wanted me to know how much he enjoyed it. 

Here’s a sampling of email comments:

Anna said,

I am truly enjoying the novel!  I think you did an outstanding job telling an interesting story.  I am not done, but will keep you posted.

Bob said,

If this story is close to true, Paul surely was a crazy man!  You did an excellent job of introducing the characters slowly, and repeated their relationships.  I am a history/geography minor so appreciate the references to place names and historical characters.  The maps are OK but a scale would have been helpful, especially to novice types.  I am enjoying the plot development very much.  Thank you for using Aramaic and Greek names interchangeably.   It is helpful to me to solidify them in my wee brain.

Mary said,

My husband read your book in three days–he just couldn’t put it down–and enjoyed every minute of it … [a few weeks later she added]  At this rate, I don’t know if I am ever going to get to finish reading your book.  My husband was talking to his brother last week about the book and his brother said he would like to read it.  So this past weekend he gave it to him to read… so now I am either going to have to buy my own copy or wait until my husband gets it back from his brother.

Donna said,

I have just finished the book and found it fascinating.  Like many of your other readers, I  have decided I need to get back to Paul’s writings in the New Testament.  Your book has given me a deeper understanding of how the early Christian church grew – Paul’s role in it and the fierce conflict between Jew and Gentile during this time.
I will recommend this to friends.  Thank you, I love historical novels and this was one worth reading.

Mike said,

I can only imagine the amount of time you had to have spent to gather the data not only on the historical, anthropological and archeological levels but on the climate and seasons and the types of farming, food, plants, insects, butterflies and birds at the various locations.  Maybe being a farm boy, and more attuned to the weather, drew me into the realness of the story line and paralleling Acts which I have always felt is one of the more compelling books of the new testament made the story of Paul more honest at least to me.  I had always thought of Paul as different from the norms of society and if Paul was gay or not doesn’t really change the bible and the good news from my point of view anyway.  I found a great peace settle on me as I read and concluded the reading of this novel.

Nancy said,

I’ve finished reading your book and really enjoyed it! I’m going to suggest our weekly Pauline Epistles Bible study read this during the rest of the summer.  It provides an interesting “review” of events, particularly the founding of the early churches, plus fills in the blanks with interesting possibilities! I really got a much deeper and clearer sense of the actual tensions within the early Church between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

Sylvia said,

I started reading the novel and love the short chapters. It reads so well.  I put this book on our church book club for next year.

Yvonne said,

The premise that Paul was gay was extremely interesting, especially with what the church has been dealing in recent time. The story was extraordinarily well written and entertaining.  Your development of the characters was remarkable.  I loved your book.  Thanks for writing it.  I’m anxious to pass your book on to friends and get their opinions.

Add your comments here or send me an email obie (dot) holmen (at) gmail (dot) com.

Northfield daughter, author Siri Hustvedt speaks

Siri Hustvedt On a Friday evening a week ago, author Siri Hustvedt addressed a packed upper floor of the Northfield Public Libary.  Now resident in Brooklyn but born and raised in Northfield, Hustvedt said that all her writings contain memories of her Northfield childhood.  Indeed, much of her 45 minute address related to her philosophy of writing in which memory and imagination are intertwined.  For Hustvedt, the creative process of writing fiction is akin to child play and fantasizing, the alteration of reality by imagination, calling up images and glimpses of the past to realize the author’s inner truth.  She disagreed with the view that fiction writers are “professional liars” because characters are true to the author.

Northfield is a retirement community with a heavy component of former professionals—hardly surprising since the two excellent private liberal arts colleges here are significant attractions(Carleton and St. Olaf).  Northfield supposedly has the highest per capita rate of persons with doctoral degrees of any city in the nation.  This environment has allowed an organization called the Elder Collegium to thrive.  Their motto is “a questing mind never retires.”  Retired professors offer interesting courses for their fellow retirees, with a decided tilt toward art and literature.  I know one favorite class has been “the history and chemistry of chocolate” offered by a retired Carleton chemistry professor.

I mention the Elder Collegium because the works of Siri Hustvedt are being featured in a course on Minnesota writers, and the Collegium website announces that she will be present as a speaker for one session of the class offered by my friend, Jim Holden.

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Last night, I attended a book club meeting at the Monkey See bookstore in downtown Northfield, Mn.  Jerry, the bookstore owner, hosted Phil and Barb, Mary, Charlene, and author Tom Swift whose own book, Chief Bender’s Burden, has been getting lots of favorable publicity lately.  At the once-a-month get together, we discussed the short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri.


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The “theology” of Dan Brown

ross-douthatConservative commentator Ross Douthat (author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream) sees a sinister theology behind the popular novels of Dan Brown.  In a NY Times op ed piece, Douthat suggests that The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and the soon to be released The Lost Symbol are more than wildly popular pulp fiction.  “He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology,” says Douthat.

The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.

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