Every would-be novelist struggles to explain what sets her fiction apart from all others. The alphabet soup of categories begins with action/adventure, beach books and classics, and goes on to include romance, science fiction, and westerns. Every once in a while, however, a writer ventures into territory that has not yet been claimed, and Rita Dragonette’s first novel is one of those.
Set in a Midwestern university community, “The Fourteenth of September” covers the turbulent months between September 1969 and May 1970. Ms. Dragonette calls it a “coming of conscience” novel, because it explores the impact of the Vietnam War on a young woman with an ROTC scholarship at a time when sentiment against the war is increasing, particularly on college campuses.
The novel starts with the main character, Judy Talton, venturing into the Student Union to sit on the “freak side.” She is in disguise. Instead of the usual ROTC garb, she wears new jeans that she has run through three washing cycles and a fatigue jacket rescued from a resale shop.
A wide central aisle separates the Freaks from the Greeks. The chasm between the two widens when two Reserve Officer Training Corps members enter.
Judy tries to shrink behind a stack of books when the chant, “R…O…T…C, ROTC” starts as a murmur and then crescendos as more voices join in.
“They pronounced it ROT-ZEE, like Nazi,” Judy thinks.
The so-called Tune Room of the Student Center is an apt stage for the unfolding drama of Judy’s inner conflict. Side by side on the walls are posters against the Vietnam War and announcements of upcoming football games and Greek get-togethers.
Private First Class Talton moves back and forth between the two worlds, desperate to hang on to her ROTC nursing scholarship, but at the same time drawn to those against the war. Her conflict threatens to jeopardize her future, while also deepening the divide with her mother, who’d served as a nurse in World War II.
Parts of the novel reflect the author’s personal background. From her mother’s WWII scrapbooks, Rita learned that after basic training, her mom was sent to Danville, Kentucky, as part of the first mental health nursing unit to go overseas. Also during that time, she attended the l942 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and had dinner at the famed Brown Hotel in Louisville.
Rita Dragonette was an undergraduate during the time period of her novel. A military scholarship similar to ROTC paid her tuition, the only way she could afford to go to college. The increasing tumult around the war made her question her values.
“I remember agonizing if being in the army and taking their money made me complicit in the war,” she said.
“The combination of the Lottery (choosing who, as we felt, was going to die as if in a game show) and then Kent State (watching the government shoot students just like us) challenged everyone,” Ms. Dragonette continued. “Even then, I felt it was a seminal time frame for my generation and an equal conflict — as much for a woman as for a man — and that the latter wasn’t fully appreciated.”
When the military draft gave way to a lottery based selection process, attitudes changed. The various reactions to the shift are reflected in Judy Talton and the people around her. September 14, Judy’s birth date, is pulled as No. 1 in the Draft Lottery. With that, Judy realizes she’d be off to Vietnam if she were a guy, plunging her deeper into the conflict between her values and her family’s – and society’s – expectations.
“The Fourteenth of September” is in a class all by itself, incorporating history, popular culture of the late 1960s, and the turmoil associated with fighting foreign wars while combating protests and unrest at home. Readers will find the novel compelling and unique as it takes a look at the past and sparks discussion about the wars in progress today and who fights them.
For more information, log on to http://www.ritadragonette.com/projects/the-fourteenth-of-september/. Additional background is available regarding the Vietnam era, and sample chapters are featured. Publication date of “The Fourteenth of September” is Sept. 18, and the book is available for pre-orders on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.