Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge


The plot of Elizabeth Partridge’s Dogtag Summer (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 240 pp., $16.99) begins in 1981 when the eleven-year-old protagonist, Tracy, and her best pal, Stargazer, find a dogtag in an ammo box in her adoptive father’s workshop.  Eventually, the reader finds out the importance of the dogtag and what it means to Tracy.

I won’t act as a spoiler here, but in this young adult novel the meaning of the dogtag seemed crystal clear to me the moment it was discovered. Tracy’s adoptive father is a stereotypical Vietnam vet with alcohol dependency,  PTSD, intimacy problems, and a low-level job. Tracy herself is half Vietnamese and is called “gook” and worse by her peers.

Because of Stargazer’s loopy name, I figured his parents would be hippies, and I was correct. His father is a stereotypical peacenik who refers to Vietnam veterans as “baby killers,” which made me very uncomfortable, which may have been the goal of the author.

I have met many Vietnam veterans with alcohol and intimacy problems, but none of the hundreds of peaceniks and hippies I have spent time with ever called me a baby killer, even though they knew I served in Vietnam. Maybe I was just lucky.

Even so, the stereotyping made the book a hard read for me, as did the pervading sadness of the book and the secret-keeping, which drove the plot forward to the end. Eventually, Tracy finds out some of the truth about her origins: that her real name was Tuyet, for one thing, and that her mother was not a prostitute.

I found the appendix annoying, and I’ll give just one example. The author says: “The television reporting of the war turned many people, like Stargazer’s father, Beldon, against the war, angry at the government and at the GI’s who had fought there.”  It would take me several pages to deconstruct that sentence, so I won’t, but it serves as an example of the over-simplification that is endemic in this novel.

Elizabeth Partridge has a degree in Women’s Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of biographies of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Partridge has won many writing prizes and honors.
—David Willson