Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Coming Home: Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge

Mom leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. "I'd forgotten how rough it was when you first got here," she said. "Those first few months, I thought we were going to spend our lives trying to coax you out of hiding."

I sat still on the couch after the door shut behind her. Thoughts tumbled around in my head, fell down into the hollow, scooped-out space inside me.

I'd had a home by a wide, tea-colored river. I'd had Grandmother and Ma. Before my baby book started when I was six, before I used to hide in my closet, I'd been a baby to someone else.

The summer between elementary and junior high school only adds to Tracy's feeling of being neither here nor there. But when scavenging for materials to build their own Viking funeral ship, she and her friend Stargazer find an old ammo chest among her father's tools and inside it a pair of Army dogtags and a worn photo of her dad and two Vietnam War buddies, she knows that what is there is part of her feeling of personal limbo.

Her father is furious when he catches them with the box and snatches it away. But like Pandora's box, the ghosts that are released from that place cannot be put back. A river of memories come flooding back in Tracy's mind, no longer hidden in the closet of her mind.

Dad was totally wrong if he thought he could just shove the ammo box on some shelf and life would go on like before. Something had been trapped in the box --maybe hopes and dreams and fears--and now they were out a blowing around us, skittering between us all.

Now the past--her past before she was six and taken to be adopted in California--comes back to Tracy, memories of her mother, who worked for the Americans and came home with presents from the PX and hugs for her only on holidays, of Grandmother, who consoled her when people called her con-lai and whispered that she got her brown hair and light eyes from an American father, and worst of all, how the soldiers of Uncle Ho came, killed her uncle, and took Grandmother away while she hid under the bed, and how the big Americans took her away from the house on the edge of the river. Now Tracy understands her feeling of being separate, somewhere between two places. Stargazer's war-protester father calls her dad a "baby killer" for his role in Vietnam, but the dogtags, with the serial number and blood type of someone named James who was killed by the Vietnamese, still seems to haunt him. Who was this man and what secrets were hidden away in that box? Tracy has to know what they can tell her about the other part of her, that half that was named Tuyet and once lived by a tea-colored river.

Elizabeth Partridge's moving novel, Dogtag Summer (Bloomsbury, 2011) , set in 1980 in the aftermath of that war, testifies to the truth that in a way wars are never over. Suffering from what we now call PTSD, her dad is still fighting a war within over what he did and saw in that war, and Tracy realizes that she, too, carries within herself the contradictions of that war, that the story of that mysterious James and her Vietnamese mother is her story as well., and that she was and is loved by both families, the living and the dead.

Partridge skillfully weaves the flashbacks of her former life with the daily events of Tracy's summer as she makes her separate peace with the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the living. A deeply meaningful book which deserves more acclaim than it has received, Dogtag Summer pairs well with the current National Book Award and Newbery Honor-winning Inside Out and Back Again as poignant and telling records for young adult readers of this period in our history, both as historical novel studies or for an understanding of that war for thoughtful readers.

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