What a Trip by Susen Edwards

What a Trip (She Writes Press, 424 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) by Susen Edwards is a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War. Edwards is the author of a young adult novel; this is her first fictional offering for older adults.  

The story is set in the late 1960s and centers on red-haired Fiona, who is just one year out of high school. She and her best friend Melissa are “smitten with Janis Joplin,” drink Southern Comfort, and smoke cigarettes and pot.

Melissa believes in black magic and thinks her pregnancy was caused by a spell a girl put on her so her boyfriend would break up with her. Meanwhile, Fiona breaks up with her boyfriend and wishes she had “a writer boyfriend who adored her.”

Fiona lives on the East Coast and is in her first year of college. She’s concerned that her new boyfriend Jack might bea more pro-military than she is. On the other hand, she says that he’s “great in the sack.” Then she meets Mike, who tells Fiona: “You’re one far-out chick,” and brings her antiwar thinking into sharper focus.

The two girls get Tarot readings, leading them to buy their own decks and start giving readings. At a party Fiona meets a guy just back from Vietnam. She and Jack break up and she hooks up with Reuben, who wants to be a writer. In typical sixties drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll fashion, it doesn’t take long for these young women to move from one man to another.

Reuben opposes the war in Vietnam and he and Fiona take part in big antiwar demonstrations. Reuben becomes more and more certain that when the time comes he will slip into Canada instead of reporting for military service. He expects Fiona to go with him.

The novel takes place during a time when popular music played an especially important part in the lives of young people. At the back of the book Edwards includes a playlist of songs she mentions in the story—tunes by Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, the Rolling Stones, and others.

What a Trip seems to be aimed at a female readership. It’s deserving of an audience of people who want to know more about what it was like to come of age in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, AKA “The Sixties.”  

–Bill McCloud

Last Summer Boys by Bill Rivers

Last Summer Boys (Lake Union Publishing, 285 pp. $14.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel by Bill Rivers. An outstanding student, Rivers went into public service after college. He worked in the Senate and then was a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. A prized memento from his childhood, a part from a crashed jet he found, is the genesis for this book about four boys in the summer of 1968.

The story takes place in rural Pennsylvania. The Eliot family lives in a two-hundred-year-old house. Pete is the oldest of three boys. Will is the middle child, and the youngest is Jack, the who is focus of the story, as we see that fateful summer through his eyes. 

The brothers are joined by their bright cousin Frankie because the big city he lives in is being roiled by the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the novel involves introducing the city boy to life in the country. Frankie is game and bonds especially with Jack. 

In 1968 Jack knows from watching the nightly news that South Vietnam has become a dangerous place. Pete is going to turn 18 on the 4th of July and Jack has nightmares about his brother being in the “murderous jungles.” He gets it in his head that if his brother becomes famous, he can’t be drafted. So Jack decides that Pete should find the wreck of a jet fighter that went down in the area.

All the boys go on the quest. Besides this adventure, the book describes other incidents in a summer to remember. They tangle with a motorcycle gang. They go to a drive-in movie where Will impresses the local beauty. A camping trip becomes perilous. They go to a cemetery one spooky night.

The book contains a lot of nostalgia for Baby Boomers. Hell, the boys even catch fireflies. A fire that threatens their home. It’s not the only example of the role Mother Nature plays in the story.

Bill Rivers

I use the word “nostalgia” because it best describes the book, not just because the boys have adventures that many will be able to relate to. If you grew up in the suburbs or the country in the 1950 and 60s, chances are you will be able to relate to at least one of the incidents. If you are a Boomer or older, you will smile at all the things the boys do that the later generations’ parents would have heart attacks over. 

Nostalgia also covers some of the characters as Rivers includes stereotypes like a greedy land developer, a motorcycle gang leader, and a creepy boy who likes to start fires. All the characters are so well-drawn, though, that you won’t cringe over any of them. The adventures are also familiar, but the results are often unpredictable.

Rivers is a polished writer. He had me from page one when he described a man’s temper as “like coals glowing in the hearth late at night.” The book is full of such deft analogies. The exposition connecting the adventures fleshes out the characters and keeps the book flowing at a brisk pace. 

The boys manage to cram in a lot in one summer. The book reads like a series of short stories, all of which are interesting.  

The book’s website is lastsummerboys.com

–Kevin Hardy

Escape Route by Elan Barnehama

Elan Barnehama’s second novel, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 242 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.49, Kindle), is an entertaining, fast-moving, well-written story about a small group of precocious teenagers in New York City in the late 1960s. The chapter-like story breaks have rock music titles such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Summer in the City.”

The action swirls around Zach, who plays right field on his high school’s baseball team because that’s “where they played you if you couldn’t play.” His sister Ali is a student at Columbia University. Zach’s family is Jewish and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He accepts the traditions of Judaism, but questions a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place and his father to get polio. Zach believes that Jewish history is like “a series of apocalyptic novels that never seems to end.”

Zach is also concerned about the increasing violence reported in Vietnam and decides to use a notebook to begin recording the daily American casualty reports gleaned from the newspapers. He’s also aware that he doesn’t know anyone who served in the war.

Then he attends a party and hears a Marine tell a story that’s also related in Nicholas Proffit’s classic Vietnam War-heavy novel, Gardens of Stone. In it, someone jokes about the Viet Cong shooting arrows at American helicopters and someone else explains the difficulty of defeating an enemy willing to use arrows against helicopters.

It’s a time when the U.S. is experiencing political assassinations and increasing antiwar demonstrations. Zach begins engaging in philosophical conversations about the war and the Holocaust. He continues tracking war casualties, though his parents hope he’ll grow out of it.

A homeless Korean War veteran comes into Zach’s life, as well as a girl whose brother is a Vietnam War veteran. The nation learns of the My Lai massacre, Zach becomes infatuated with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and he gets excited about an upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert.

Zach then starts to believe that the government may very well start rounding up Jews. He joins AAA to have access to road maps, and sets out little-traveled routes into Canada with the idea that his family could escape north of the border and would be allowed in since the Canadians readily accepted American draft evaders.

While the book’s ending seemed to be abrupt, I’ll attribute that mainly that fact that I was not ready for this story to end.

Always leave your audience wanting more. That’s what Barnehama has done with this enjoyable, relatively short novel.

The author’s website is elanbarnehama.com

–Bill McCloud

I Refuse to Kill by Francesco Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci’s I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s (Sunbury Press, 294 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is an interesting, informative look at one man’s lengthy battle with his Virginia draft board in the sixties. Da Vinci is an L.A.-based journalist and speaker. Over the years his photographs have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time.

In telling the story of his efforts to be accepted by the Selective Service System as a Conscientious Objector Da Vinci relies on journals he wrote in between 1960 and 1971. He writes that he remembers when he was 15 hearing President Kennedy’s call “for my generation to become active citizens and make the country better.” Inspired by JFK, he became interested in politics.

Da Vinci says his family would appear outwardly to be an all-American one, yet he can’t remember either of his alcoholic parents ever hugging or kissing him. A third-generation pacifist, he writes that he believes war is “never justified, no matter how glorified and propagandized.”

A politically precocious teenager, Da Vinci wanted to take part in the 1963 March on Washington, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. He dutifully registered for the draft at eighteen, a time when he was becoming interested in the Civil Rights movement and the protest music of the time “with its messages of social justice and peace through nonviolence.”  

As he prepared to begin college, he showed up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and soon began studying the Vietnam War in depth. In college he began thinking about giving up his student deferment and officially becoming a Conscientious Objector because of his moral beliefs about war. He realized that if his request was not approved it would mean he likely would go to prison.

Sickened by the war’s “relentless violence shown on TV,” he applied for C.O. status guided, he writes, “by a non-religious but spiritual philosophy.” After he graduated from college Da Vinci’s draft board rejected his claim. He felt very strongly that he was not dodging the draft, but was facing it in his own way. He went on to fight with the draft board over his classification for the next three years.

Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci seems to be almost a Forrest Gump-like character as he meets or comes close to raft of celebrities, including Neil Armstrong, Joan Baez, Bob Hope, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Paul Newman, and Rosa Parks. He includes an amazing collection of “you are there” photos in the book, mostly ones he took.

In his book, he also sets out the history of the concept of declaring oneself a Conscientious Objector. He uses his own experiences to try to explain why some people are willing to place their freedom in jeopardy in order to live a life based strictly on what their conscience tells them is right. This is an important story, and one that should be neither ridiculed nor ignored.

The author’s website is irefusetokill.com

–Bill McCloud

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Like Boy Scouts with Guns by Roger S. Durham

Roger Durham’s memoir, Like Boy Scouts with Guns: Memoir of a Counterculture Warrior in Vietnam, (McFarland, 302 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) is a change of pace for him. While his previous books deal with the Civil War and other military history topics, this one focuses on his 1970-71 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

In his revealing Introduction, Durham sets out his views of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and highlights people’s attitudes, motivations, and stereotypes. He explains that his book is about “the men who fought the war while opposing it.” However, throughout the book, there is little mention of opposition to the Vietnam War. He spends much more time describing recreational drug uses, including accounts of him and his buddies getting high just about every day.

In the late sixties Durham attended college as a way, he says, of avoiding the draft. But he flunked out and was soon drafted into the Army. He spent 16 months in Vietnam attached first to the 18th Engineer Brigade at Dong Ba Thin, then with the 35th Engineer Group at Cam Ranh. He writes about his three R&Rs to Sydney where he found his way to a counterculture commune, made a few friends, and continued his drug use.

Throughout his enlistment, Durham was singled out for his ability to type, which landed him in safe, rear-echelon jobs. His father had persuaded him to take a typing class in high school and Durham thanks him for guiding him away from danger.

After returning to The World, Roger Durham went back to college and earned a degree in history. Upon graduation, he put that degree to good use. Ironically, even though he opposed the Vietnam War and flouted Army regulations, he went to work for several state and federal agencies, and wound up spending 24 years operating U.S. Army base museums.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about recreational drug use among the troops in the Vietnam War in the early seventies.

–Bob Wartman

Jacobo’s Rainbow by David Hirshberg

Can the mystical Jewish demon, the Golem, save the lives of two Army medics in the jungle during the Vietnam War? Did you know that there were Jews living in India for many centuries? Or about people known as “Conversos” who, since the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, have lived outwardly as Catholics but secretly observe Jewish rituals in private, including in communities in the Southwestern United States?

If you read David Hirshberg’s novel, Jacobo’s Rainbow (Fig Tree Books, 352 pp. $15.49, hardcover; $1.99, Kindle), you will find the answers to all of these questions.

In the book the pseudonymous Hirshberg tells how the Jewish people have had to be resilient in resisting anti-Semitism for millennia. The novel is set in Vietnam during the war and at fictional university in New Mexico where a student free speech movement and antiwar protests converge.

The anti-Semitism of a student leader affects some Jewish students who are part of the movement. One thing leads to another and then one of the young Jews is arrested and a judge gives him a choice of going to jail or getting drafted. He chooses the latter and is sent to Vietnam where he undergoes heavy combat. I served in the rear in that war, so I can’t address the accuracy of the book’s combat scenes, but they seem a bit out of sync with the real deal.

In addition to the in-country action, a lot happens on campus as students face off with the college administrators and the police. Plus, we get tepid romances between some of the characters. Ultimately, there is an answer to the question of whether justice will prevail among the book’s characters. 

As someone who is Jewish, who served in the Army in Vietnam, and also was involved in the antiwar movement, I found the depictions of both to be interesting, but not riveting. It is likely that this book will appeal to some Jewish readers. Whether it will be attractive to a broader audience remains to be seen.

— Bruce I. Waxman

Conscientious Objector by Wayne R. Ferren, Jr.

The words “conscientious objector” are at once are a label, a category, a frame of mind, a belief—and a designation that can well cause a wounded war veteran to stiffen his spine. Conscientious objector status, classified 1-O by the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War, was granted to tens of thousands of  American men during the war. Nearly 55 percent of them completed alternative civilian service.

Wayne R. Ferren, Jr., the author of the memoir, Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment (Archway, 538 pp. $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle), is a self-described hippie. Ferren writes that he has “a firmly professed primal faith, neo-pagan, and new-age bases for my beliefs, as well leanings toward Buddhism and Transcendentalism,” although he was raised as a Methodist.

His book contains more than 425 pages of text, along with 60 pages of endnotes. It follows Ferren from his 1948 birth to the present, and seems at times to be a peripatetic ramble through his life. An early interest in geology propelled him to study the interconnectedness of the earth and its systems. He takes us through his school years, where he began to form his anti-conflict beliefs, and his future involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

Throughout the book Ferren regales the reader with his thought processes and how he went about securing his much-sought-after CO designation from the Selective Service. He even includes copies of copy of the paperwork involved, intertwining those passages with the story of his life and times as a “hippie activist.” There are a few factual errors, but the writing and editing of this book are well done.

As a Vietnam War veteran, I found myself reacting to Ferren’s story with a much kinder eye than would have been possible for me to do 50 or so years ago as the ensuing years have both blunted and sharpened my perceptions of the antiwar movement and those who took part in it.

Which is why I recommend this book as maybe it’s time to see the other side of the coin.

–Tom Werzyn

Elsewhere Than Vietnam by David Schwartz

Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”

It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.

Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.

“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.

Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”

He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.

Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.

Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.

The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.

–Bill McCloud

Berserkley by Robert Roth

Many years ago through a haze that wasn’t particularly atmospheric in nature or origin, someone said to me, “If you can stand there, flat-footed, and tell me you remember the Sixties, man, you weren’t really there.” Turns out he was correct, on several levels.

Speaking of the Sixties, Robert Roth’s novel, Berserkley (The Periphery Press, 620 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins and ends with the word “Unbelievable.” That just about describes this offering, which is constructed like a huge, feverish Jack Kerouac story—after being loosely introduced to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

There are no chapters, per se. Roth, instead, gives us lots of words, separated by rows of five asterisks. We move from scene to scene, with the breaks coming just when the reader needs to take a breath. A series of cinematic scenes dissolve as we wade through the story. What a rush!

Roth has very skillfully assembled a covey of characters right out of central casting who personify, almost eerily, every type that we had on the scene at UC Berkeley in the mid-nineteen sixties. We get the dweeb from Cleveland (our erstwhile protagonist); the drug-addled Vietnam veteran; the effete snob from a waspish New England family; the oblivious Santa Monica cutie; the self-hating Jewish restaurant owner; the Chicano wanna-be radical; the wide-eyed rural Nebraska farm boy; the grizzled, old, radical newspaper publisher; the kidnapped newspaper heiress; the Hare Krishna background singers; and a huge herd of supporting weirdos.

Throughout the book I read about little things here and there that I’d forgotten over the decades. And I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.”

The story propels us through a time-warped narrative that seemingly is unanchored. Roth rarely bothers to mention a day or time as the story just seems to waft along—kind of like the ever-present cloud of pot smoke that was Berkeley in those days. Roth presents more fiction on the back-cover blurbs, including words from the late Truman Capote calling the novel “far superior to To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I began reading Beserkley with a bit of trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. It offers up memories of the Sixties, along with the love, hate, and angst that went with them.

I strongly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn