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Originally published Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'Dust to Dust': born to be a soldier

In Benjamin Busch's beautifully written memoir, "Dust to Dust," he recounts how his parents, a novelist and a librarian, never even let him play with a gun. But he became a warrior anyway — as a Marine in Iraq. Busch discusses his book at several locations in April and May in the Seattle area.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Benjamin Busch

The author of "Dust to Dust" will discuss his book at these area locations:

• At 2 p.m. April 29 at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or www.villagebooks.com).

• At 7 p.m. May 1 at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

• At 7 p.m. May 2 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, in conversation with author Karl Marlantes (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

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'Dust to Dust: A Memoir'

by Benjamin Busch

Ecco, 310 pp., $26.99

As a child, Benjamin Busch was not allowed to have a gun. His parents had been Vietnam War protesters, "and they had no intention of raising a soldier." Both were liberal intellectuals: his mother, a librarian, and his father, the novelist Frederick Busch.

But their son had other ideas, as his captivating new book shows. Busch's memoir, "Dust to Dust," is arranged not chronologically but in sections by themes — arms, water, metal, soil, bone, wood, stone, blood and ash — which reminisce on his childhood in upstate New York as well as training as a Marine Corps officer, two tours of combat duty in Iraq, acting experience, fatherhood, and lifelong fondness for nature and building things, especially forts.

Whether he used field stone, lumber and snow at home or dust, rubble and sandbags in the Middle East, forts, defending them and those who manned them held an elemental appeal for Busch. "I was a martial creature," he writes, whose parents' "prolonged effort to dissuade me from my natural tendencies had failed."

Of course, imaginary battles merely faked death. As the book progresses, the invincible boy becomes a man who gradually learns he's vulnerable after all. A football knee injury in high school, a shrapnel wound, even the simple wear and tear of aging transform Busch's innocence.

Only a third of this memoir is spent at war, but these hundred pages or so, which contrast Busch's own joyous freedoms of a rural upbringing, evidence further insight. For example, he notes, "An Iraqi boy, surrounded by war, could not play war. ... To avoid accidents, we made it illegal to sell toy weapons in stores ... In Iraq, there were consequences for children acting on their imagination."

Along with deepening compassion, then, Busch's ideals of glory and purpose become tempered, too. At one point, he says, there was nothing beyond the Marines' base "but desert, a great uninhabited emptiness that we had come to fight over." His imagery and title theme recur: dry silt, blowing sand, dust everywhere.

"It caught under our eyelids and seemed to solidify in the moisture deep in our nostrils. We wrapped our heads in our T-shirts to sleep, and it felt like drowning in dry space."

Juxtaposed with these vivid episodes are boyhood encounters he describes fondly: building model ships, fishing, making a treehouse, collecting bottle caps, a winter drive in deep snow. Busch often recalls his mother's love of gardening. Every year, her daffodils greeted spring and her vegetable garden flourished in summer. He remembers his father's tenacious devotion to writing each day. Theirs was a house of words.

But, Busch said earlier this year in a "Publishers Weekly" interview, he wasn't much of a reader or writer until he served in Iraq. There, putting words on a page prompted understanding. And it's fascinating to journey through his literary landscapes as time passes, swirls back, and eddies like a stream before flowing away.

Now a father of two daughters, Busch lives on an 80-acre farm with his wife in Michigan. His father died of a heart attack in 2006, his mother of a brain tumor in 2007. This memoir, a tender elegy to them, is about his road from dust to dust, the paths taken and where they led.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner writes and lives in New Mexico.

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