M. H. Slater
Daytime Moon Publisher, 530 pp.
Abbie Hoffman famously remarked, "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there." His was a jesting reference to the use of mind-altering drugs, but in a more profound way he was correct. Each era has an essence that that takes careful research to recreate. One cannot capture an era's vibe simply by ticking off the boxes of events that occurred during the period. This is a problem in M(elanie) H. Salter's Dove. She's too young to have been there and she's also Australian. The latter is not a deal-breaker, though it does explain minor errors–such as locating Ohio State University in Athens, OH instead of Columbus. Getting the vibe wrong is a more serious problem.
The novel is set in 1970, the year that Andy, a young man from Alabama, gets his draft notice. Andy and his girlfriend Heather decide to flee for Canada. They assume the identities of characters from a book they both love: Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, with Andy becoming "Japhy" and Heather emerging as "Ray." That's not a bad choice—The Dharma Bums often held the same reverence for college-age folks in 1970 as A Catcher in the Rye for those coming of age a decade earlier. But right away we have a problem: student deferments weren't curtailed until 1971. There was no reason for Japhy to split instead of going to college as planned. Am I being too picky? Does the novel work if we just change the zero to a one? Nope! If we do that, then Salter can't have her on-the-road characters wend their way to Kent State in time for the massacre. (Are we okay with mixing real people and fictional characters at Kent? It makes me queasy, given that one she mentions is a relative by marriage.) Nor can she show how profoundly Ray is affected by the death of Janis, Jimi, and Jim.
The problems get worse. Kerouac is just the tip of the simpatico iceberg for Japhy and Ray; their real bond is rooted in the songs of James Lee Stanley. They know all of his songs and Salter prints lyrics that putatively tie to the book's plot. Except there is no way two kids from Alabama are singing the songs of the Philadelphia-based Stanley in 1970; he didn't record until 1973. Yet Stanley is the spiritual anchor–and a character to boot–largely because Salter loves his music, met him, and thinks he's terrific. (I'll grant that last one.) He shows up in a USO-like concert in Vietnam and that never happened either; Stanley was in college, which is where Japhy should have been. This is to say that the two major motivations for our protagonists are convenient, but ahistorical contrivances.
There's also an intellectual trivialization present in the book. I'll concede that lots of young people jumped on the hippie wannabe bandwagon, but there is a serious lack of what used to be called "analysis"–a 60s' buzzword–among the book's characters. Ray is aggressive and Japhy is more passive, but as Dylan observed, "You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing." Is it conceivable that two hippies would accept a ride from three ripped, clean-cut guys and that Ray would argue with them and announce that Japhy was a draft dodger? Only if you are applying a force-fit to an implausible plot. And things stray further when Ray and Japhy link up with white hippie chick Lauren and her African American boyfriend Leaf. We get the obligatory visit to a Canadian commune before Japhy re-crosses the border, is arrested, jailed, and sentenced: to join the US Army and go to Vietnam. So tick off the trauma in 'Nam box as well.
Lots of guys mused over the consequences of draft dodging. Read Tim O'Brien. They thought about it–a lot and deeply. Japhy apparently had little analysis other than desire for self-preservation and thoughts of Ray. He can adjust–and he's fine with that. How shallow! But it's more believable than life on the home front. Shall we toss in a little free love? Pregnancies and uncertain fatherhood? A love triad? Identity transference during sex? Do you believe for a second that a white girl and her black lover could openly cavort about small-town Alabama in 1970? Let me answer the last one: No flippin' way!
I don't insist on 100% historical accuracy in creative works, but Dove is a turkey fattened on clichés, a Wikipedia view of history, and melodrama. This Vietnam War-era novel is strictly 4F. Rob Weir