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  • Written by Anthony Grooms
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345452931
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In his barracks, Walter Burke is trying to write a letter to the parents of a fallen soldier, an Alabama man who died in a muddy rice paddy. But all he can think of is his childhood friend Lamar, the friend with whom he first experienced the fury of violence, on the streets of Birmingham, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The juxtaposition is so powerful—between war-torn Vietnam and terror-filled “Bombingham”—that he is drawn back to the summer that would see his transition from childish wonder at the world to his certain knowledge of his place in it.

Walter and Lamar were always aware of the terms of segregation—the horrendous rules and stifling reality. Their paper route never took them to the white areas of town. But that year, everything exploded. And so did Walter’s family. As the great movement swelled around them, the Burkes faced tremendous obstacles of their own. From a tortured past lingered questions of faith, and a terrible family crisis found its climax as the city did the same. In the streets of Birmingham, ordinary citizens risked their lives to change America. And for Walter, the war was just beginning.


IN FRONT OF US, about a quarter mile, was Thoybu, a complex
of straw houses among the palms. Like so many of the villages we
had run through, it looked tranquil at a distance, with felicific fronds
waving above the thatch roofs. The silence, though, ought to have
been a warning, but my head throbbed, a lump the size of a potato
pressed against my anus, and I wanted to sleep more than anything. I
didn't like being in the open, and the two platoons were strung out
across the paddies. The sunlight hurt my eyes and made me dizzy, so
I looked down and followed Haywood. He was over six foot and two
hundred pounds. His deep tracks filled with brown water.

Vester walked beside me, elbow to elbow. His face was pearled
with sweat. "Goddamn hot," he said. I didn't say anything. Maybe I
gave him a half smile. "Okay, cool. Be that way if you want. Your
'Bama ass gone get plenty hot before this day is over."

"It's all a matter of mind over matter," I said.

"You full of shit."

"I don't mind and you don't matter."

"You tell 'im, Tibbs." Bright Eyes walked on my left. My name was
Walter Burke, but I let them call me "Mr. Tibbs" after a character Sidney
Poitier played in the movies.

"You don't matter, neither," Vester said. "That's why your black ass
is here. And that rabbit over there?" He referred to Bright Eyes. "I
wouldn't even bother scraping his pale-face ass off the sole of my shoe."

"I'm just on a Sunday stroll," Bright Eyes said. "Just like going to
church on revival Sunday. Picnic on the grounds. Ham and chicken.
Macaroni and cheese--"

"What the hell is he talking about?"

"Cakes and pies. Grandma makes this caramel cake and Aunt
Claudia, she makes a squash pie. Ever heard of that?"

"Shut the fuck up, you Bugs Bunny-looking motherfucker. What
the fuck you talking about, anyway? You see any goddamn squash pie
out here?"

RTO's radio crackled and the squad leader talked into it. They
were just on the other side of Bright Eyes. I looked at Bright Eyes. He
smiled and pushed at his helmet.

"It's A-okay, a cruise," he reported.

"There no such thing as a cruise," I said.

"You've just got to put an edge on everything."

"He's just a edgy brother," Vester said.

"Hard-edged," Bright Eyes said. "Wouldn't you say, Tibbs? I mean,
there's a difference. Edgy is jumpy like. But hard-edged is cool like."

"Cold-edged. Like a mama-san's tit," Vester said.

I didn't say anything. Mr. Tibbs would have found the conversation

"What mama-san's tit have you been sucking?"

"The same damn one as you."

"Then you must have been sucking it the wrong way. Remind me
to show you some technique. Tibbs got technique. Tibbs, you need to
give your brother man a lesson in tit sucking."

"Keep cool, Harvey." I quoted a line from the movie, mimicking
Mr. Tibbs's exacting elocution.

Haywood let us catch up to him. He squeezed in between Vester and
me. "I got a uptight feeling about this one," he whispered. "There's got
to be a Betty out here somewhere. I just feel it." The lump in my stomach
turned over. Haywood was usually right about these things.

I slowed down and it seemed that everyone did, as if the line had
run up against an unseen tension. I squinted and surveyed the flood
plain, puzzled with paddies. The river was behind and to the left of
us. Haywood pointed to a figure running away. "Who want this one?"
he asked.

"Looks like a papa-san," Bright Eyes said. "I ain't for capping papasans."
"He's legal," Haywood said.

"Legal, my ass." Bright Eyes looked at me for support. "Fugazi!
That's fucked up."

I lifted my rifle and sighted along the barrel. The man was dressed
in the loose-fitting outfit we called black pajamas. We had been told it
was okay to shoot anyone in black pajamas who ran because he was
VC, running to give warning. The figure made slow progress across
the paddies, fighting the suction of the mud with each leap. It
appeared to be an old man, though from the distance it could easily
have been an old woman with her hair up. I followed the figure with
the point of the barrel.

"You got 'im, Waltie?" Haywood asked. There were perhaps thirty
GIs closer to the figure than us.

"I got 'im." My heart fluttered and I squeezed off a round. Sporadic
popping came from up and down the line, but I was first. The
figure tripped and went down.

"What that make? Four or five for you?" asked Haywood.

"Who's counting?"

"You are counting. But I wouldn't count that one," Bright Eyes
said. "I wouldn't count that one if I were you, Tibbs."

"You are not me," I said.

"Lord a mighty, don't get so testy about it. I'm not saying you did
something wrong. I'm just saying I wouldn't count that one."

"Count what you want to count," Haywood said. "It doesn't
change anything. The way it is, is the way it is."

"But the brother got style," Vester said. "He so cool, he scare me.
A hundred degrees out here and he ain't even sweating. Just pick 'em
off like--pow!"

Haywood looked at me and snorted. He and I knew better. He was
my age, but seemed older. He already had his short-timer's stick. He
knew how important it was to do what you had to do to get by.

"But I wouldn't have capped a papa-san," Bright Eyes said. "Not
an old man."

"It wasn't an old man."

"What was it then? Looked like papa-san to me."

"It wasn't your papa," I said and moved ahead.

"Least you could have let somebody down the line do it. Maybe
they could have seen it better."

"Whose conscience are you? You out of everybody," Haywood said
to Bright Eyes. "You ain't got no room to talk with that ring of baby
fingers hanging around your neck."

"Ain't no baby fingers on my chain." Bright Eyes pulled a chain
out of his shirt. It had an ear on it from a kill he had made earlier in
the week. The ear was beginning to mold.

"Goddamn," said Vester. "Throw that goddamn shit away. Walking
around like a goddamn cannibal with that goddamn thing on
your neck. It stinks."

"It's my power."

"Fuck your power. It stinks. This ain't Africa or something; we
ain't no goddamn cannibals. It stinks."

"Y'all ease up," Haywood said, authoritatively. "Keep alert. I think
we're in for some action."

"Uh-uh," Bright Eyes disagreed. "CO said, 'Contact unlikely.' "

Just then a snake shimmied across my path. I froze and held my
breath. It was one of the slender, green, quick kind we often encountered
in the bamboo thickets. A kind of cobra. It skimmed across a
puddle and disappeared into the spring green shoots.

That's an omen, I thought, but I did not say it. I looked into the
blue sky, and for a moment felt its weight. "We'll get through. We'll
get through, all right," I heard Haywood saying. He had seen the
snake, too. "Oh, Lord," I heard Bright Eyes say. "Goddamn, here we
go," Vester said. Then I heard popping coming from out of the trees
in the village. The men in formation closest to the village fell into the
mud, and like a row of dominoes the line went down.

I threw myself into the mud and tried to spot the snipers through
the sight of my rifle. The fire got heavy. GIs groaned and cried out.
The radio crackled and word came down the line to dig in, but it was
all I could do to lie still and hope to stay clear of the rounds patting
the mud all around me.

The fire slackened after ten minutes, and we were ordered to
move forward. By now I was not thinking about my head or my
stomach. My senses were outside of me like the feelers of an insect,
aware of every movement, every sound, and every smell. We all were
insects, ground beetles testing the mud with each step lest we set off a
mine. We gained a couple of hundred feet before we fell back in heavy
fire. Haywood spotted an area in the trees just in front of the village.
"Bust caps right along in there," he directed, and the four of us
burned up a lot of ammunition concentrating on the one clump of
trees. After ten or fifteen minutes, the fronds were dangling from the
trees and our fire received no answer from that clump. I couldn't see
our line anymore because the men were low, digging shallow holes
in the mud into which to slap their bodies. Smoke wafted across the
fields. After a while, a Chinook came across, headed toward a Medevac
flare, but the chopper drew so much fire, it couldn't land.

"We need some air. Why don't they send us some air?" Vester

"It won't be long," Haywood assured him. "Lieutenant's called for
it by now. Just lay flat and we'll get through this."

"We need some air," Vester yelled across to the squad leader.

"It's on the way," the squad leader said. He was from Boston, and
he sounded like it.

"When? Next Christmas?" Bright Eyes yelled.

"Be easy. Be easy," Haywood said. His voice was resonant, and
Bright Eyes squeaked. Their voices reminded me of the drones and
chirps of crickets. Vester whined. They were a jazz trio of insects. And
I . . . I was the singer. I was Nat "King" Cole. Cool and mellow. Only I
hadn't begun to sing yet.

The VC opened up with thirty-caliber guns, twenty or thirty of
them, and jackhammered all around us. I looked at Haywood, and he
raised his head and looked back. His eyes were round and bright. He
opened his mouth to say something when a round peeled his head
open just above the brow.

"Goddamn," Vester said, "goddamn, goddamn."

I closed my eyes and put my face down in the mud. For what
seemed like a long time, I didn't think about anything, but felt myself
loosen and drain over the paddies. Then a familiar uneasiness came
to me as I began to pull together again. For a second I allowed myself
to hope that Haywood was alive. I had seen the bullet catch him, but
maybe it was only a flesh wound, the kind that cowboys get on TV.
"Goddamn, goddamn."

I raised my head and looked again. Haywood was dead, as dead as
any dead man I had seen. I tried to swallow what that meant; it meant
nothing to me. I gripped tighter on my rifle and tried to crawl ahead,
away from Haywood, but the firefight kept me in place. I put the
mud-slicked rifle stock against my shoulder and sighted at Thoybu.
They kill us; we kill them. The sight passed over the place where the
papa-san had fallen, and I thought that if I hadn't shot at the papasan,
then Haywood would be alive. It should have been me, since I
shot at the papa-san, since I felt dead already, it should have been me.

I had imagined that it would be me before Haywood. After all, he was
the one who dreamed about what he would do back in the world. He
was going to go to college, to make something of himself.

I had promised Haywood that if I survived him, that I would write
a letter to his mother and father. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, I was with
your beloved Haywood at the end, and I can assure you that it came quickly and
without any pain. In his last breath he whispered about you, about home, about
home sweet home...
.He had said he would write one for me, too. I told
him not to trouble himself.

When the fire slackened, I slithered over to Haywood. Bright Eyes
was already beside him.

"He's gone," Bright Eyes said.

Haywood didn't look too bad. Part of his head had broken open,
but had fallen back into place, held by a flap of skin. They could have
a funeral with him.

"Medic!" Vester screamed.

"Are you hit? Are you hit?" I screamed back.

He was crawling to Haywood. "Goddamn. Goddamn."
"Quit your damning," Bright Eyes said. "It's over. He's gone."

I looked where the RTO and the squad leader had been. They
weren't there. Our line was still. "Just be quiet," I said. "Just be real
quiet for a while." For a moment it seemed like a beautiful summer
day. Blue sky. White billows of cloud. The rustle of a light breeze. It
could have been Alabama. Alabama was "the Beautiful State." That is
what the word meant. Haywood knew this. He knew a lot of what I
knew. He was from Eufaula. I was from Birmingham. Dear Mr. and
Mrs. Jackson ... Dear Haywood's Mother and Father ... Dear Haywood....

I closed his eyes, and now I had his blood on my hands. "Let's be quiet
for a while."

The thirty-calibers picked up again; the mud became soupy with
blood and piss; the sun became hotter, and the air filled with biting
flies. There was the smell of open bowels, smoke, and oil. The guns
whined and popped incessantly. I lay beside Haywood and nestled my
face in the mud beside his torso. The mud was warm and smelled
faintly of manure.


“Grooms reimagines one of the most shattering episodes in American history, the infamous 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.”

Bombingham is a considerable achievement . . . [that marks] the emergence of a brave and promising talent.”
—The Washington Post

“Too many of our younger generation know nothing about the struggle, the sacrifices, the dying of our people during those demonstrations of the fifties and the sixties. And older people too should be reminded, so that they’ll never forget. . . . [Bombingham] is about a subject and a time we should never forget.”
Author of A Lesson Before Dying
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


(Scroll to the bottom of this page to download a PDF version of this teacher's guide.)

In Bombingham, acclaimed author Anthony Grooms vividly brings to life the turbulent period in American history when racially motivated violence rocked the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Through the compelling narration of Walter Burke, a troubled young soldier caught in the crossfire in Vietnam, Grooms examines the complex intersection of segregation, civil rights, and racism in one city's past. As Walter recalls his own involvement as a child marcher in Birmingham in 1963 and revisits the sacrifices made by members of his family in their quest for equality, Bombingham opens students' eyes to the many kinds of injustice in our nation and the world at large.


Inspired in part by the stories told to him by his wife and her family, Anthony Grooms's Bombingham reads as much like a memoir of life in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s as it does a work of fiction. Grounded in the historical context of the civil rights movement around the time of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bombingham exposes the moral crises faced by the Burkes, an ordinary American family trying to go on with their lives as usual during a time of local and national unrest. As Walter Burke struggles to compose a letter of condolence to the parents of a fallen soldier, a fellow Alabamian serving with him as a young adult in Vietnam, all he can think of is his childhood companion, Lamar Burrell, the friend with whom he first experienced the fury of violence on the streets of Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The juxtaposition is so powerful— between war-torn Vietnam and terror-filled "Bombingham"—that Walter finds himself thinking back to the summer that would witness his maturation from a child to a young man, and his coming to terms with his place in the world. Walter's efforts to understand his past force him to confront difficult memories of his mother's
terminal illness, a family crisis that found its climax just as the violence in Birmingham was beginning to erupt.


ANTHONY GROOMS was educated at the College of William and Mary and at George Mason University. He is the author of the chapbook, Ice Poems, and Trouble No More: Stories. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, an Arts Administration Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two Lillian Smith Awards from the Southern Regional Council. He is a professor of creative writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and lives in Atlanta with his wife, Pamela B. Jackson, and their son.


Bombingham’s examination of one character’s coming to terms with his role in two historically significant events—the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement—provides teaching opportunities on a wide variety of topics. The author’s detailed depiction of social conditions for black Americans in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s exposes students of American history to the realities of the era. The book’s focus on the uncertainties faced by soldiers during times of war enables students analyzing the Vietnam conflict to better understand that phase in American history and its effect on society. As a classic bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, Bombingham would be ideal for inclusion in a literature course, especially comparative literature classes that consider character development in multiple works spanning different cultures. The book’s concern with historical conflict, racial issues, and civil rights makes it a valuable addition to any humanities course. Likewise, the themes mentioned above would make Bombingham an excellent selection for common reading programs; the book has been adopted for First Year Experience programs at five colleges and universities including: Alabama A&M University, Florida A&M University, Milwaukee University, Otterbein College, and SUNY Oswego.


1. What role does race play in Walter Burke's relationships with the other enlisted men in his platoon? How does Walter's friendship with Vester and Haywood compare to his relationship with Bright Eyes? Why is Walter unable to talk openly with his fellow soldiers about his childhood experiences in Birmingham?
2. Why do Walter's parents choose not to involve themselves in the community's ongoing efforts to improve civil rights in Birmingham? Given their frustration with the unfair treatment of blacks by many whites, what explains their reluctance to join in the nonviolent protests? How does their unwillingness to protest their conditions impact Walter and his sister, Josie, in terms of their friendships with other children?
3. How does the revelation of his mother's terminal illness affect Walter, and why does his father swear him to secrecy? How does Walter's mother's approach to treatment for her inoperable brain cancer relate to her religious faith? Discuss how her medical condition changes the domestic landscape in the Burke home, particularly with respect to Walter's parents' marriage.
4. To what extent does segregation impact every aspect of Walter's childhood? You might consider his experiences at school, at play, and at home. How does he experience social restrictions on his life? How does the violence against blacks in Birmingham and much of the South become part of his consciousness as a young boy?
5. How does the author's decision to frame Walter's experiences in Birmingham as a child in the context of his experiences in Vietnam as an adult enable a richer appreciation of both settings? Why does Walter feel compelled to revisit his childhood in light of his letter of condolence to Haywood's family?

6. How does Walter's decision to share the nature of his mother's illness with Lamar Burrell relate to the depth of his feelings for his friend? How do Lamar's experiences of marches and nonviolent protests in Birmingham compare to those that Walter encounters, and what accounts for any discrepancies? Discuss how Walter and Lamar function as alter egos for each other.
7. Discuss the theme of violence in Bombingham. How does the city of Birmingham become more violent over the course of the novel, despite the efforts of protesters to conduct their demonstrations nonviolently? How does the escalation of domestic violence in the Burke home relate to the progression of Walter's mother's illness?
8. To what extent does the arrival of Walter's extended family—his Grandma Pic, Uncle Reed, and Aunt Bennie—improve the situation in the Burke home? Why does Walter draw out the story of his grandfather's murder from Uncle Reed, and how does it help him come to terms with his mother's resignation to dying young?
9. Discuss the ways in which the author explores the theme of responsibility in Bombingham. How does Walter's mother's illness transform the responsibilities that he, his father, and his sister face? How does the social crisis in Birmingham demand new obligations of its citizens? Does Walter succeed in balancing his new sets of responsibilities?
10. How does the presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham further kindle the resolve of the child protesters in Bombingham? To what extent does the participation of children in the nonviolent protests seem to offer a new, radical vision for social revolution?
11. How is the problem of suffering explored in the novel? How do the papa-san and the barking dog that Walter kill in Thoybu relate to the innocent black people who are targeted by Bull Connor and his police force in Birmingham? How do the hopes and struggles of people in any given place relate to the suffering they must undergo in order to prevail?
12. Why is the fact of Bright Eyes's race problematic for Walter in one context, but not in another? Is it fair to label Walter a racist? Discuss the reasons for the views Walter holds, and the extent to which they are justified, based on his encounters with white people.

13. How does Walter react to seeing his father humiliate himself before a white police officer, a fellow infantryman? How does his father's decision to abase himself in order to gain Josie's release from police custody reflect on his character? To what extent might his father's alcoholism be a response to the challenges he faces at home and in the world?
14. How does Walter connect his dreams for himself and his family to the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Why does Walter's mother discourage dreaming and hoping, and how does she frame those acts in terms of faith in God? To what extent do Walter's dreams seem to be part of a greater religious belief?
15. How does the death of Lamar Burrell relate to Haywood Jackson's death? What does Walter's decision to address his letter to both Haywood's parents and Lamar's mother reveal about the associations he draws between these friends' deaths?
16. Why does the physical description "All-American" arouse in Walter so many misgivings and resentments? To what extent does Walter feel that the expression excludes him and his fellow black citizens?
17. How would you characterize the sibling relationship between Walter and Josie? Compare and contrast their attitudes toward their mother's illness, their parents' marriage, and the nonviolent protests they engage in and witness.
18. How does Reverend Timmons, among others, awaken Walter's awareness of the inequality around him? Why does Walter conceal his attendance at the nonviolent protest workshops from his teachers, classmates, and parents? What role might Walter's difficult family situation play in his becoming increasingly passionate about race issues?
19. In his letter to Haywood Jackson's family, Walter writes that he should have told Haywood about compassion when he described Birmingham. Discuss the meaning of this remark. What role does compassion play in Walter's childhood experiences, and how does it connect to the kinds of suffering he and his family endure?
20. How does the book's depiction of white authorities, particularly of Bull Connor and the Birmingham police, underscore the impossible odds Walter and other black Americans faced during the era of segregation? Why do you think the author chose not to depict any sympathetic white characters in Bombingham?


1. Remind students that Bombingham devotes the majority of its narrative to the childhood of Walter Burke, and that it frames its account in the context of his experiences as an adult during the Vietnam War. Ask students to consider how the novel would read without the sections set in Vietnam. Then ask them how it would read with more scenes set in Vietnam. How does the author's decision to include the context of Vietnam as a frame for telling the story of Walter Burke's childhood experiences in Birmingham impact students' understanding of the significance of both events in the character's life? How do these two very different settings converge over the course of the novel?

2. Discuss Walter Burke's character development in Bombingham with students. What roles do the troubling events in his family and in the city of Birmingham play in his growth and maturation? Ask students to what extent they feel Walter has truly made the transformation from child to adult, and whether or not they can identify any particular moment in the narrative when that transformation might have occurred. Then ask students to write a short story that includes a character who faces a challenge, overcomes it, and grows from it in some way. Encourage students to anchor their character's internal development to actual events in the story.

3. In Bombingham, the author develops the fictional story of Walter Burke in the city of Birmingham in the 1960s. Ask students to consider some of the narrative advantages and disadvantages of reading about Walter Burke, a fictional character, interacting with real-life historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. How does this convergence of fact and fiction inform their experience of reading the novel? Ask students to prepare short stories that combine fictional characters with figures from real life. Ask them to share their stories with one another to determine whether or not their fictional characters are enriched by their association with real-life figures.


1. Bombingham includes figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, both of whom were active in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. Have students research the history of this era in greater depth, with a focus on civil rights events in Birmingham. In the course of their research, students should find out more about the objectives of civil rights organizers, and the inspiration for their nonviolent protests. They should also examine the extent to which the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church helped galvanize the movement as a whole.

2. Bombingham elaborates on the role of children in the social revolution that took place in Birmingham in 1963, but children have been motivated to effect change in many historically significant events. Ask students to research the history of the child marchers in Birmingham, and to examine the activities of children in civil rights efforts in other cities. Have students prepare an essay that examines why children have been drawn into complex political situations, and addresses the impact of their involvement.


Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965
Juan Williams and Julian Bond
Marching in Birmingham
William J. Boerst
Parting the Waters: America in the King  Years: 1954-1963, Taylor Branch Reporting Civil Rights, Part I: American Journalism 1941-1963
Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Bill Kovach, and Carol Polsgrove
The Wheels of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement
Donald M. Crawford, Sr.
Trouble No More: Stories
Anthony Grooms
The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation
Drew D. Hansen
Miracle in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Memoir, 1954-1965
W. Edward Harris
A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth
 Andrew M. Manis
When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement
Robert H. Mayer
Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands: A Novel
Susan Carol McCarthy
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
Diane McWhorter
Four Spirits: A Novel
Sena Jeter Naslund
The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien
Black Boy
Richard Wright


This guide was prepared by JULIE COOPER, a writer from Bainbridge Island, Washington. A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Washington, Julie has taught beginning and advanced fiction writing at the University of Washington, and works as a freelance writer of educational materials and reading group guides for several major publishers. Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide

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