Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge
What is worse? To be an alien, with completely different language, food, religion, mores, etc., stuck in a different world? Or to be someone who came from a divergent culture, but has been so forcefully acclimatized into the prevailing tradition that you have been forced to deny all your history to fit in with the prevailing society?
I’ll wait for a minute while you consider that question, which is not an easy choice to make.
This is the question that the protagonist of this book, Tracy, might ask herself, especially if she had read Inside Out and Back Again. Like the narrator of that book, Tracy was a young woman who was plucked out of South Vietnam when the war was lost and the Americans were leaving with whichever fortunate Southern empathizers (apparently, at least) could flee with them. But unlike Ha, she is alone and is adopted by American parents, and so is raised in a completely American situation. Tracy speaks perfect English and has been accepted, for the most part, in her southern California community, although as an ethnically-Vietnamese/culturally-American in the 1970’s, she never feels like she fits in anywhere.
Tracy’s adopted father is an ex-Vietnam War veteran who refuses to discuss his war experience, which contributes to Tracy’s alienation from her past. But when she and her friend find a dog tag with an unknown name, things come to a head. The discovery not only stirs up Tracy’s repressed memories, it drives her to press her father for questions he doesn’t want to answer. The resulting tale is part mystery, part psychology, part cultural history, and so is quite captivating and valuable, especially for a middle school audience.
I have to say, however, that there are a few problems with the book. It is well based in Vietnamese culture, but I think it could have been enhanced if some of the foundations of those people, especially in regards to their spiritual beliefs and the afterworld, had been explained. Also, there is a whole part of the psychology strand that I missed entirely, and only realized from reading other reviews. I may be over-estimating my own brilliance, but it seems to me that if I didn’t get it, readers who are 10-14 are not going to stumble onto that explanation themselves either.
Nonetheless, it is an interesting and worthwhile read, especially for those with no memories of the Vietnam War. It also has a great Appendix that provides a lot of information about the Vietnam War, military protocol, and the divisive opinions in the US at that time, which can provide the basis for some wonderful class or group discussions.
I have found this year that there are many books that seem to come in two--that is, books that cover sort of the same theme, time period, or such, or that remind me of each other, for whatever reason. When that is the case, I can't help comparing them to each other, even though they are usually quite different. And usually one suffers in the comparison. Such is the case with Dogtag Summer. I probably would have been more impressed with it had it not come out the same year as Inside Out and Back Again, which I liked better.
However, such is life. But I'm glad my son has read both of them, because I will refer to them both once we get to the whole Vietnam War era in American history later this spring. They both provide valuable perspectives to a difficult time in US history.