“Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods,” wrote American war correspondent Michael Herr. The sentiment serves as a fitting epigraph to The Vinyl Underground, the debut young adult novel from Nashville writer and musician Rob Rufus, author of the award-winning 2016 memoir, Die Young with Me.
The year is 1968 and the war has hit close to home for 17-year-old Ronnie Bingham, a high school senior in a small town south of Jacksonville, Florida. It has only been a few months since his older brother, Bruce, was killed. “I visualized his last breath leaving his body,” Ronnie says, “and soaring up into the heavy sky of Vietnam and over the black waves of the Pacific … a cloud made up of nothing, a cold front that blew him home.” Ronnie remembers his brother through the popular music they both loved, and Bruce’s record collection becomes his most prized possession.
Their dad, a former Marine, is determined that Ronnie’s military service will somehow make up for his brother’s loss and redeem their traumatized family. But Ronnie struggles to make sense of life without Bruce and is beset by fears about his own future. Everything changes when a new family moves into the house across the street. Hana is Ronnie’s age and half-Japanese, making her a target at school for a vicious war-inspired variety of racism unconcerned with geographic details. But Hana is a force to be reckoned with. Fearless and defiant, she longs to be a journalist covering the pivotal events of the time.
When Hana is attacked by high school thugs, Ronnie steps in, and after she punches him in the nose, they become friends. Ronnie finds comfort in Hana’s strength and certainty. “I stood in that same spot until her laughter evaporated into the night,” he says. “I tried to place the feeling washing over me, but it had become so unfamiliar I labeled it an utterly new sensation. Peace. Brief and unexpected. The sweetest sucker-punch of all.” Ronnie finds a fellow music lover in Hana, and they decide to form a record-listening club — The Vinyl Underground — with two other friends. It’s an oasis of pleasure, an escape from the daily pressures they all feel from the violent uncertainty of the world around them.
Rufus skillfully uses period details to recreate the cultural atmosphere of 1968. Ronnie and his classmates read John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, watch The Graduate, and listen to music by Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The news is filled with death: the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, the daily body counts from Vietnam. As public opinion begins to turn against the war, especially among young people like Ronnie and Hana, anti-war protests join civil rights demonstrations, embroiling the country in unrest.
Even with the support of music and friends, Ronnie remains panic-stricken about his future. College is financially unlikely, and it’s only a few weeks until his mandatory draft exam. “Now it was all I could think about,” he says, “the draft the draft the draft. I couldn’t put it out of my mind anymore, or pretend it wasn’t coming. I was no longer able to convince myself that Bruce’s death had paid some cosmic debt and left me free from having to worry about being drafted and killed.”
That’s when the members of The Vinyl Underground hatch a scheme to obtain for Ronnie the coveted 4-F classification that will make him ineligible for the draft. It’s a risky plan, and when racial hatred and violence erupt around them and events begin to spiral out of their control, Ronnie holds on to Hana’s advice. “Be brave or be crazy,” she tells him. “Be whatever you have to be to get to the edge of the cliff. It doesn’t matter how you get there, what matters is you jump.”
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
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