When Elizabeth Partridge began research for her new book, “Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam” (Viking Books for Young Readers, “$22.99, 224 pages), she never imagined its publication would feel so timely.
It was 2011 and, as Partridge notes, “Obama was still president.”
“Boots,” which is aimed at the young adult audience, arrives on bookstore shelves April 10, less than a month after students across the country walked out of their classrooms in protest of gun violence.
Partridge, who as a high school and college student in Berkeley in the 1960’s, had a front-row seat to the anti-war movement, was inspired to do the book after seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the first time. During the seven years she researched and wrote it, the political landscape dramatically shifted.
Just as coffins returning Vietnam prompted college students to take to the streets in protest 50 years ago, the recent acceleration of school shootings, punctuated by the one at Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Fla., inspired a new generation to say “#EnoughIsEnough.”
“I am so excited by the youth movement,” Partridge said in an interview from her cozy Berkeley bungalow the day before the March 14 walkout. “I love seeing them politicized (even if it’s) under such dire circumstances.”
Partridge has had an affection for teenagers and their energy ever since her two sons (now 35 and 37) started at her own alma mater – Berkeley High. Back then, on Friday nights, she and her husband would make their home a welcoming space for their sons’ friends to hang out. That’s also when she shifted gears, morphing from children’s author to YA author.
Though “Boots on the Ground” is aimed at a younger audience, it serves as a thoughtful, accessible contemporary history lesson for readers of all ages, and the D.C. memorial plays a major role. Partridge says everyone interviewed told her about breaking down emotionally when seeking out the names of buddies or family members lost or unaccounted for among the 58,318 on the monument’s sleek, seemingly endless black walls.
“The San Francisco Bay Area was a flashpoint for demonstrations and marches against the war,” she writes in the book’s prologue. “I was a dreamy, bookish girl, not inclined to politics and protest. But the war made me feel desperate; I wanted it to end.”
What she wanted for “Boots” was, in the words of her godmother Dorothea Lange, “to bear witness to history.”
The photo-rich book does that by interspersing the soldier’s stories with history-explaining chapters on the presidents – John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon – in office as the war began and dragged on. The stories were based on interviews with veterans as well as a peace-bead loving nurse who finds herself on the hospital’s frontlines and a young refugee who describes being seperated from as South Vietnam fell.
“It was certainly the hardest book I’ve ever done,” said Partridge, who has done similar books about Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Dr. Martin Luther King and Lange. “The amount of material was hard to organize. I went down one rabbit hole after another.”
Even more challenging was living day and night with such emotional material, especially the soldiers’ stories.
“I’’m the most unlikely advocate for veterans you’d ever expect to meet,” she said, adding that while she was a peaceful protester, “I never disparaged veterans, I wanted to honor them.”
This photo of Clairborne L. Shaw of the U.S. Marine Corps is one of many historic photos featured in the new book, “Boots on the Ground.” Oakland Museum of California
Pointing out that “some of us had ways to stay out of the military, but not everyone did,” she said she also always felt sorry for how they were treated upon their return.
In addition to their personal stories, Partridge was interested in the social forces involved. “Why were they there? What challenges did they face? What were the racial issues? How do you cope with that kind of stress?” Among the questions she had to ask – and then decide how how much to include – were: “What kind of drugs do you do? How do you change your morality of “thou shalt not kill” to “kill this person before they kill you?”
The most critical question, she says, was “how do you emotionally get back? When society does not support you?”
One of the most compelling stories is that of Hoa Thi Nguyen, whose father was in the South Vietnamese military and worked with the Americans and who lost her family in the war’s final days. As it turns out, Hoa’s daughter is married to one of Partridge’s sons. One of the most challenging parts of her research was looking through the photos of the children – “they looked like my grandchildren” – some of them war casualties, others in Vietnamese orphanages because their fathers were American soldiers.
Other stories include those of Jan Scruggs, the veteran who led the crusade for the memorial; Maya Lin, who designed it, and Country Joe Fish, the Berkeley songwriter whose famous “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” became the protesters’ anthem.
“We never connect the protesters with the silenced veterans,” she said. “They’re two sides of the same story, the yin and the yang of the war.”
Besides bringing to life an important chapter in American history, she wants “Boots” to remind the country how badly the veterans of this particular war were treated. Concerned that they still are not getting the care they need, she includes the suicide hotline at the end of the book.
“I didn’t realize how emotional the journey would be,” she said. “(The veteran’s) stories were so tender and beautiful, and their willingness to talk to me. And with my Vietnamese grandchildren … I was caught in a vortex.”