How modern can a book’s setting be to still consider it historical fiction?
Where Have All The Flowers Gone? The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty, Boston, Massachusetts, 1968, Ellen Emerson White, 2002.
It’s a little strange to think that the Vietnam War era is definitely considered “historical” now, which is why I think this book didn’t really echo with the audience the way it was intended to. Reading this book is like reading a book about your parents (or, for young readers, your grandparents, which is equally horrifying in its own way), because I think not quite enough time has passed for it to have the interesting “historical fiction” factor. A large part of focus on the Vietnam War was also the presence of media (television—but also print journalism) for the very first time in wartime, and so the Vietnam conflict feels much more “current” than, say, Korea, even though they’re quite close in terms of years.
American Girl ran into a similar problem when they tried to release a “historical” doll set in 1974—despite the “cool” factors of bell-bottoms and glasses and whatnot, there’s a lack of not temporal distance but emotional distance in time, which is what I think causes the unpopularity. It’s been fifty years, but I wonder if there’s ever going to be a resurgence in fiction covering that period for that very reason. It doesn’t feel historical in the same way that, say, the Second World War does.
Anyway, this book is the only Dear America with a specific companion book, which I’ll cover next week—that being The Journal Of Patrick Seamus Flaherty, United States Marine Corps, Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968. Patrick is the protagonist Molly’s brother, and the two books cover very different aspects of the war. I know for a fact that these two books have been used in teaching the era in history classes, which I think is very interesting, but also because both of these books have some great points and some flawed points.
I digress already, but this is a really interesting book for a lot of reasons. Molly is a little older than the average protagonist, at 15-turning-16, and lives in Boston with her Irish Catholic family. Her father is a firefighter and her older sister is married with two young children, and her previously-mentioned brother Patrick is eighteen and serving a 13-month stint in the Marines. At the opening of the book he’s only just arrived in-country, so her family is still adjusting to the idea. Molly, because she is fifteen years old, is also concerned with boys at her school, what to wear, what her friends are up to, and so on, and because Ellen Emerson White is terrific, it’s all done with a pretty light hand so as not to seem overwhelming.
Right off the bat, the theme is “confusion”—in that Molly doesn’t actually understand what is going on with the war, why it’s happening, and why her brother is there, and the worst part is that no one else does, either. Her parents can’t explain it to her because they don’t fully understand it themselves, and a big part of the book is that everyone Molly meets knows only a few tiny soundbites and nobody makes any effort to understand any other part of the story. Anyway, Molly convinces her parents to let her go to a New Year’s Eve party with her friends and dithers around about what to wear (with a stopover discussing how cool bell-bottoms are and how lame it is that she’s not allowed to wear pants to school), and then is really disappointed when she gets there to find that it’s just people who are Too Cool for her. The only thing that ends up happening is that she gets into a fight with a boy she used to like for calling her brother a “Stormtrooper,” and then everyone else starts fighting and it’s just a mess. (Although who hasn’t been to that party?)
Molly’s New Year’s resolution is to “do something,” but she doesn’t know what to do—she reflects that even if she wanted to protest the war, it doesn’t seem to be doing any good, as Johnson just keeps asking for more troops anyway. And she can’t do anything useful at school, because the teacher in charge of the school newspaper keeps nixing her ideas to write editorials about how boys and girls are treated differently at school and so on. She’s interested in the hippie “way of life,” but mostly because she thinks it’s noisy and fun and “like a carnival.” Her dad keeps saying that hippies only want to lure kids into being drug addicts and that Molly only looks at the pretty parts, but she keeps going to Harvard Square with her friends because, why not? She’s torn between the sort of interesting stuff she’s attracted to and the fact that Harvard Square is a pretty anti-war kind of place.
At her family’s Super Bowl party that year, Molly’s uncle starts making “cracks about black people,” and Molly keeps needling him about it—asking him not to joke like that, asking him if he would refuse to save black kids from a fire, and her mother wants her to just let it go and keep the peace. Later that week she gets in trouble at school simply for asking a teacher why communism is so bad, when it sounds pretty decent, and her teacher tells her it’s “espousing communist ideology.” So there’s another argument in her class, Molly gets sent to the principal’s office, and as usual, nobody bothers to tell her anything.
Molly wants to volunteer at the animal shelter, which her parents keep flatly refusing on the idea that she’ll bring home zillions of pets (which she admits is probably true), but she’s tripped up on the volunteering thing when Patrick writes a letter to her friend Theresa—their agreed-upon signal that he was going to write something he didn’t want Molly to share with their parents. His letter is about a friend of his who died horribly after having his legs blown off by a mortar, and how terrified he is and how miserable he is and how he wants to cry (a lot). Just after the letter, they learn that Khe Sanh is under attack, and no one in Molly’s family gets any sleep for several days.
This is February of 1968, and for those of you who are not up to date on your history, that means that the Tet Offensive is going on, and suddenly Vietnam is at the top of everyone’s minds. Molly’s mom continues to freak out, her dad works nonstop, and when Molly goes over to Brenda’s to babysit, she’s surprised to see that Brenda has no interest in watching the news, and Brenda points out that they’re going to make themselves insane if they keep obsessing over every bit of news they can find. The few short letters that they get from Patrick sound angry, rather than scared, and Molly decides that she’s going to go and volunteer because she doesn’t give two figs about what her parents think.
But when she’s on her way to the animal shelter, she goes right by the Veterans’ Hospital, and on a whim goes in there instead. She tells them she wants to volunteer, and the nurse in charge tries to throw her right out before Molly tells her that her brother is in Khe Sanh, and the nurse offers her one single try. When Molly tells her parents about this, they have a battle royale—they forbid her, she says they’re lucky she wants to do something normal and responsible rather than wanting to move “into a crash pad on Central Square with my new pot-smoking friends, Amber and Rainbow, who I just met today on Boston Common,” or something. So they agree to it after her father says it’s not the right environment for a young girl, full of angry young men—and Molly says “What if we end up having an angry, young man living right here in the house? Will I have to move out?”
So on her first day at the VA hospital, they stick Molly in an orthopedics ward of men who are missing limbs, which makes her a little dizzy. But she realizes that most of the men there are quite young—really only a few years older than she is—and she busies herself changing sheets and picking up and chatting with the guys. On her third or fourth time, the guys are all miserable because one of them hurt himself in his rehab therapy, and Molly manages to cheer most of them up by making baseballs out of pillow cases and hurling them around the room. (I don’t know. Boys are weird. Men are strange.)
For her birthday, Molly’s mother gives her a copy of The Feminine Mystique, which Molly mistakes for a book about “how beautiful it is to grow into a woman.” She’s interested in it, but she worries that her mom regrets getting married and having kids without doing anything else with her life. One of the interesting things about this book is that it tries to do a lot—it touches on feminism and racism and politics and the general civil rights struggle, all the while being set in the heart of a Vietnam War story. On the one hand, it’s realistic—all these things really were going on at the same time—but it’s quite a lot of stuff for a YA book to deal with. I’m certainly not complaining about it, but some of it does feel a little bit shoehorned in—especially Molly’s remarks about pot, that she’s “too afraid” to try it because of all the terrible stories you hear about drugs, which sounds a little bit like “Put something in there about drugs, but it can’t be a nice thing.”
Anyway, carrying on, Molly goes to volunteer and one of the guys, Vince, teaches her how to play poker, and then after she continues to lose for several hands, she goes over to talk to a guy named Ray who’s never said a single word to anyone at the hospital. She just chats to him about Patrick, and eventually Ray asks if she’s there because of pity.
At the beginning of April, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, which sets off rioting in Boston—meaning that Molly’s dad works three days straight putting out fires. In an effort to go back to something semi-normal, Molly goes to volunteer at the hospital and finds that Vince is dead, totally randomly, from an embolism that just happened right out of the blue. Obviously, the rest of the guys are pretty depressed, and Molly just goes home.
At the end of the month her family gets The Telegram—the one saying that Patrick is wounded in “extremely grave” condition. Her family completely panics, Molly calls the VA to see if they can possibly find anything out, and there’s absolutely nothing any of them can do. On the one hand, this plot gets used a lot in wartime novels (including other DA and DC books), but on the other hand, it’s a nice way of driving some plot and fairly realistic. A few days later Patrick is upgraded, and eventually he calls home and says he’s being sent back to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital at the beginning of May. Her family drives up the eight hours to see him—he’s lost tons of weight and his left leg is seriously and badly injured. But he’s back, and alive, and safe, and mostly OK.
In the epilogue, Molly goes to Radcliffe after realizing veterinary science isn’t for her, and trains as a lawyer, eventually marrying a district attorney who’s a Vietnam vet himself, and has three kids of her own.
Rating: A–/B+. I think I surprised even myself with how much I enjoyed this book. IT certainly has its issues, which I touched on, but it’s a nice introduction to the Vietnam War without being overwhelming. I think it could have been even better in a few small ways, but overall it’s pretty well done. Ellen Emerson White’s characters are always nicely-drawn and smart without being snobby, and while I could complain about the other characters being fairly one-dimensional, I’ll let it slide this time. Interestingly, I wonder if another reason these book didn’t succeed as much was because it’s a bit “older” in scope. A lot of the other DA books are about younger girls—eleven is the usual age—and Molly is sixteen and a full-blown teenager. The book covers boys and dating and even includes the word “ovulation,” which I am 99% sure makes it the only Dear America/Dear Canada/any similar novel to do so, and it talks about drugs and so on and so forth without being preachy (well, without being too preachy). The overarching theme here is the confusion and absolute mess surrounding everything all the time—the war, women’s rights, racism, politics—and it really shines through well, which I think is the best part of the book.
Next week I’ll cover the companion book, for more comparing and contrasting fun!