Saturday, November 27, 2021

Anthem by Deborah Wiles, a novel about 1969

Title: Anthem
Author: Deborah Wiles
Publication: Scholastic, hardcover, 2019
Genre: Juvenile historical fiction
Setting: United States, 1969
Description: Fourteen-year-old Molly knows that her family has been broken since her older brother Barry left home because he doesn’t want to go to war in Vietnam. Her father believes it is his duty but her mother fears for his safety. When Barry’s draft card comes, Molly and cousin Norman find themselves driving across country in an old school bus to find him so that he won’t be a draft dodger. Norman, an aspiring drummer, insists he salvage some of his summer by experiencing music on the way. Molly doesn’t really understand what he has in mind but agrees because she needs him to drive. They set off on a challenging but life-changing trip that takes them from their rule-following life in South Carolina to demonstrations, hippies, and warm-hearted musicians in Atlanta, Memphis, Los Angeles and in-between until they find Barry in San Francisco.

My Impression: This “documentary novel” is a fabulous book that I read for the de Grummond Book Club and never would have picked up on my own. Molly and Norman are convincing cousins who squabble but the nearly three years difference in age means that he is fascinated by the rock and roll subculture that is part of this era while she is initially focused on their mission. Ultimately, their road trip turns into a coming of age that helps both mature, cope with crises, learn how to interact with people very different from themselves, and, less happily, forces them to realize that Barry is a manipulative person who was not worth their time and worry. The author uses period news photos and articles throughout the book (some familiar, some not) to remind her readers of events and issues that are behind the scenes of this epic 60s voyage. There are also some scary moments, as when someone stows away on their bus:
“Go!” shouted the figure next to Norman. He was a young black man. He wore stiff green pants, a white T-shirt, and silver dog tags on a chain around his neck. He looped one arm around the stanchion at the top of the stepwell while the other hand held fast to the door handle.

Norman’s panic propelled him as he shoved the engine into gear and jumped his body into action, pumping, jerking, lurching, squealing, turning the bus so tightly he thought for one terrifying minute it might tip over, then racing it down the vacant street and into the black night.
Despite not having been aware of the 1969 music scene, I was fascinated and impressed by the way author Wiles wove music into this story and allowed Norman to jam with some of the greats of the time. Each chapter has a musical header that begs for a playlist, which she thoughtfully provides. I think anyone who was alive in 1969 or simply interested in the music of that period would love this book. I had recently watched “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President” on CNN which described how President Carter (unlike many parents of the era) enjoyed the music played by his children and his presidential run was fueled by concerts and support by the Allman brothers, so when they appeared in this book, they seemed like old friends. In fact, I remember my father, who helped organize Carter’s campaign in Massachusetts, asking me about them long ago.
It was delightful to have Deborah Wiles join our discussion of her book in November and she was very generous in answering our questions and describing her approach to writing such a wide variety of voices. She told us initially she wanted to write about 1968 but felt the assassinations would obscure any other story (although she did reveal her next book will be about RFK). I think she appreciated how much we had noted little things about the book – Norman’s establishment clothing disappearing, garment by garment, and the way the school bus starts to disintegrate so the reader wonders if the teens will make it to San Francisco, let alone back home. Wiles even revealed a little bit of the lengthy permissions process for the articles and music and about her work with legendary Scholastic editor David Levithan, who bought the three-book series at auction. You know I don’t normally read books out of order but Anthem, which is the third book in this Sixties trilogy, can be read independently. I plan to read Countdown soon.

Source: Library. This is my 26th book for Marg's 
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.


TracyK said...

This book sounds very good and your review is excellent. And how nice that you got to discuss it with the author also.

I was born in Alabama (and grew up there) and I spent sometime (although not full summers) in a small town in Mississippi visiting my uncle, aunt, and cousins during my childhood. Which makes her books sound very interesting.

I will be seeking a copy of Countdown to try out the series.

Constance said...

Tracy, the author grew up in Alabama but spent summers visiting family in Mississippi. She seems like a real kindred spirit. Take a look at her website (and nice shelves) when you have a minute:

TracyK said...

Thanks for the link, Constance. I did check it out, and it does seem like we have had similar experiences, except she must have traveled around some as a child if her family was Air Force (my first husband was Air Force, which is how I got to Calif.). And she returned to the South, and I left in my early twenties and only returned for short visits after that.

I have ordered a copy of Countdown and it is on its way to me.

Laura@Reading Books Again said...

I agree with Tracy that this book sounds groovy. I loved the 1960s and remember the day my brother packed up his VW to go to Canada to avoid the draft. He was lucky he wasn't chosen for the draft and unpacked the car. I am gonna have to read this one and expect to be taken down memory lane.

CLM said...

Laura, that description of your brother packing reminded me of overhearing my grandmother and mother rejoicing that my uncle failed his physical because too skinny (could that really have been a thing?). He finished college in 1968 so I guess he was very lucky, although I didn't really understand this at the time.