One of our recommended books for 2019 is Summer of '69

SUMMER OF ’69


Drawing from his teenage years, author Todd Strasser revisits a tumultuous era and takes readers on a psychedelically tinged trip of a lifetime.

With his girlfriend, Robin, away in Canada, eighteen-year-old Lucas Baker’s only plans for the summer are to mellow out with his friends, smoke weed, drop a tab or two, and head out in his microbus for a three-day happening called the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. But life veers dramatically off track when he suddenly finds himself in danger of being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. If that isn’t heavy enough, there’s also the free-loving (and undeniably alluring) Tinsley,

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Drawing from his teenage years, author Todd Strasser revisits a tumultuous era and takes readers on a psychedelically tinged trip of a lifetime.

With his girlfriend, Robin, away in Canada, eighteen-year-old Lucas Baker’s only plans for the summer are to mellow out with his friends, smoke weed, drop a tab or two, and head out in his microbus for a three-day happening called the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. But life veers dramatically off track when he suddenly finds himself in danger of being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. If that isn’t heavy enough, there’s also the free-loving (and undeniably alluring) Tinsley, who seems determined to test Lucas’s resolve to stay faithful to Robin; a frighteningly bad trip at a Led Zeppelin concert; a run-in with an angry motorcycle gang; parents who appear headed for a divorce; and a friend on the front lines in ’Nam who’s in mortal danger of not making it back. As the pressures grow, it’s not long before Lucas finds himself knocked so far down, it’s starting to look like up to him. When tuning in, turning on, and dropping out is no longer enough, what else is there?

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • April 2019
  • 384 Pages
  • 9780763695262

Buy the Book

$17.99

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About Todd Strasser

Todd Strasser is the author of Summer of '69Todd Strasser is the internationally best-selling author of more than one hundred books for children and teens, including Fallout and The Beast of Cretacea, as well as the classics The Wave and Give a Boy a Gun, which are taught in classrooms around the world. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

Praise

“A sweetly bittersweet, surprising, even melancholy bildungsroman set against a world in flux. Groovy, man.” Kirkus Reviews

“Strasser’s protagonist is a riveting character—funny, yet also pitiful; foolish, yet justifiably frightened; self destructive, yet at his core self aware. The seedy glamor of the counterculture is on display, but so is the looming question, ‘What if that were me?’” – Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“The picture painted of the Woodstock music festival shows the dark side of peace and love, and the prevalence of drugs is on almost every page, though at times the use of psychedelics seems excessive. The best part of the book, however, is the one that transcends eras: Lucas’ introspection as he contemplates his place in the world.” – Booklist Online

“Strasser convincingly depicts the experience of the war and the opposition to it, the hippie culture of Woodstock, and the reality of using drugs. Much of the book is based on his personal experience as he explains in the author’s note. Strasser realistically portrays Lucas coming of age in the tumultuous free love defined by Woodstock.” – ALAN (blog)

 

Discussion Questions

1. An unpopular war divides the nation, astronauts land on the moon, music lovers converge on Woodstock — the summer of 1969 was anything but uneventful. What do you think was the most important event of that summer for Americans in general? What was the most important event for Lucas in particular? Why?

2. “The paterfamilias” is how Lucas usually refers to his father. Why does he use this instead of a typical name, like Dad?

3. How does your understanding of Lucas’s father evolve over the course of the novel? What do you think of Mr. Baker at the beginning of the book? What have you decided about him by its end? Is he a good man? Why?

4. Lucas goes from being a slightly chubby preteen to a strikingly handsome young man. Did this “Semi-Miraculous Transformation” change Lucas’s life for the better or the worse? Why?

5. “Do enough drugs, and reality becomes a moving target,” Lucas decides (page 22). How would you describe Lucas’s drug use? Why are drugs so attractive to Lucas and his friends? Why are they so dangerous?

6. Why is Chris Dodson the only one of Lucas’s friends who has enlisted in the army? What does Chris’s father think of antiwar protestors? How effectively does Lucas respond to Mr. Dodson’s criticisms of the peace movement?

7. America has waged several wars since Vietnam, but the U.S. Armed Forces no longer drafts young people into military service. Try to imagine what might happen in your community if the draft were reinstated. Would antiwar sentiments increase? Why?

8. Discuss Lucas’s relationship with his mother. What qualities do they share? What experiences separate them? How does each cope with adversity?

9. “I believe you’re growing up,” Lucas’s mother says to her son after a family argument (page 200). Why does she choose that particular moment to tell him this? How is this confrontation with his father different from earlier confrontations?

10. “Our concern for his well-being was the only thing left that we had in common,” Lucas says about his family’s feelings for his special needs brother, Alan (page 264). Do you agree? What role does Lucas play in Alan’s life?

11. In one of his poems, Lucas asks, “How could it be/That someone so smart and pretty/Could be into me?” (page 8) What does Robin see in Lucas? Why does she break up with him? Why does Lucas refuse to give up on their relationship?

12. “Monogamy,” Tinsley says, “is just another stupid male paradigm foisted on women to keep us subservient. Why can’t women be as free with our proclivities as men?” (page 83) What is your answer to her question?

13. Lucas wonders if, “despite all his long-haired antiestablishment airs, he was, deep down, pitifully middle-class” (page 90). Do you think Lucas has changed in this way? What does it mean to be antiestablishment? Why does Lucas think it is pitiful to be middle-class?

14. What are the significant advantages that Lucas has enjoyed throughout his life? Why is it hard for him to recognize them?

15. “You don’t get it, Arno,” Lucas insists (page 285). “You’re never gonna get it.” Arno is convinced that long hair, bell-bottoms, peace symbols, and other aspects of hippie life are just passing fads. “We’ll see who doesn’t get it,” Arno answers. Who ends up predicting the future more accurately, Lucas or Arno? Why?

16. “An ocean of freaks — by far the most enormous crowd I’ve ever seen — is spread over the broad face of a gradually sloping hill” (page 323). This is Lucas’s first impression of Woodstock. What made the music festival so important to Lucas and his friends? Why do you think it became a symbol of their generation?

17. A half century has passed since 1969. How has life changed for American teenagers in those fifty years? How has it remained the same?

18. Reread the poems scattered throughout the book. Which is your favorite? Why? Do you think Lucas has what it takes to become as successful a writer as his creator, Todd Strasser?

Excerpt

Friday, June 27

Days Until My Trip to See Robin at Camp Juliette: 28

I’m in the death queue now.
I’m not behind the plow.
If I can’t get out,
I’ll be worm dirt no doubt.
I’m in the death queue now.

Cousin Barry stands at his front door bare-chested, wearing a pair of tight hip-hugger bell-bottoms. An unfiltered Camel is squeezed between his nicotine-yellowed fingers. His dark sideburns are long and thick. His full, wavy hair falls to his shoulders. “How was it?” he asks when I hand him the camp stove I borrowed for Maine. “Bummer. They’re really straight up there.” Barry takes a pensive drag. “They hassle you?” “Hell, yeah.”

We share a moment of wordless commiseration over the sucky state of straight over- thirty America, Maine rednecks, and the deadly and immoral conflict against the North Vietnamese that we’ve been told is necessary to avoid communism taking over the world. A conflict that, until yesterday, I had expected to avoid dying in. But that thin envelope from Goddard College has changed everything. I’m in the death queue now.

Dear Mr. Baker, 

The Goddard College Admissions Committee has completed its evaluation of this year’s candidates, and I write with sincere regret to say that we are not able to offer you a place in the Class of 1973. 

I realize that this decision may come as a real disappointment . . .

When I read those terrible words last night, I briefly considered calling Robin, then changed my mind. She said she’d be busy packing, and I didn’t want to bum her out with such bad news on her last evening at home. Besides, I’d expected to see her this morning for our final pre–Camp Juliette farewell. Then on the phone a few hours ago, she said she didn’t think there’d be time to say goodbye in person. She hadn’t finished packing, and it already looked like she might be late for the camp bus.

I managed to dash to her house just as she and her father were pulling out of the driveway. Robin looked startled when she saw me. It was an awkward moment, with her father in the seat beside her. She rolled down the window, and I gave her the letter I wrote last night for her to read on the bus. I wanted to kiss her, but we never displayed physical affection in front of our parents. Still, I leaned into the window, pecked her cheek, and whispered that I loved her. She didn’t reply, but maybe I couldn’t expect that in front of her father. Her eyes began to fill with tears, and so did mine. Her father said they were late and really had to go. Then they were headed away down the street, Robin rolling up her window, tears rolling down my cheeks.

 

I follow Cousin Barry upstairs. He’s barefoot; the tattered, stringy hems of his bell-bottoms drag on the steps. It’s not like he needed the camp stove right away. I’ve come here because I don’t know what else to do now that Robin’s gone. I’m usually pretty good by myself, but not today. Today I’m a lost, empty glove that needs a hand.

Barry’s bedroom smells of cigarettes and turpentine. A mattress occupies a corner of the floor. Some colorful plastic kites are piled in another corner. The rest of the room is awash with clothing, art books, record albums, and music magazines. Nearly every fl at surface higher than the floor is covered with half squeezed tubes of paint, brushes, palettes, and cans of turpentine and paint thinner. Nearly every inch of wall space is hidden by canvases, posters of rock bands, or scribbles. Barry jots his thoughts on the walls, where they are less likely to get lost in the clutter.

Taped to one wall is an ad for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. It’s billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” in Wallkill, New York: Three Days of Peace and Music, with an art show, a crafts bazaar, workshops, and “hundreds of acres to roam on.” More important, it will feature a gargantuan lineup of top music acts like nothing anyone’s ever seen gathered in one place before.

“You going?” Barry asks when he sees me studying the ad. “Definitely. It’s gonna be incredible. Thousands of people, man.” A month ago, Milton, our mutual friend Arno Exley, and I decided to send away for tickets. What better way to celebrate our last gasp of summer together before Arno starts his freshman year at Bucknell, Milton goes back to MIT, and I — as of yesterday, fill in the blank: ____.

I’ll be worm dirt no doubt. . . .

Upon hearing that I’m planning to go to the Aquarian Exposition (whatever that means), Barry purses his lips and furrows his brow. It’s an expression I know well. Cousin rivalry. He’s a year older than me, and for most of our formative years, it was no contest. He was top dog, looking down on me literally and figuratively. Then the Semi-Miraculous Transformation took place, and now he must train his gaze upward. But the competitive streak is alive and well, at least until my corpse is flown back from Nam in a flag- shrouded coffin.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna go, too,” Barry announces.

“For real?” I blurt out, then instantly feel bad for reacting with surprise instead of encouragement. For three of the past four years, Barry hardly left his parents’ house. Then, starting roughly a year ago, he began to venture out locally, but rarely farther than a long walk or short drive.

Trying to cover up my gaffe, I wave an arm around the cluttered room. “You’ve been busy, man.” Barry’s canvases are colorful and hard-edged in the style of Frank Stella’s Protractor series. I have no critical basis for judging them, and anyway, it doesn’t matter. After years in a morose housebound purgatory of cigarettes, music, drugs, and black moods punctuated by stays in the loony bin, my cousin has begun to paint at a frenetic pace. Along with this astonishing creative outpouring has come a pronounced lifting of his spirits.

From the hall comes the sound of the toilet flushing. A moment later, a vision strolls into the room. She is petite and waif- like in a diaphanous peasant blouse and tight hip-hugger bell-bottoms, with long straight blond hair and flawless, soft looking skin. Through the stink of turpentine and cigarettes comes the heady scent of patchouli oil.

“Lucas, Tinsley.” With a cheesy grin Cousin Barry performs the introductions. He’s met Robin a few times, so I suspect he’s proud to prove that he can attract a pretty girl, too.

“Hello, Lucas. Barry’s told me about you.” Tinsley’s hazel eyes stay unwaveringly on mine. Her voice is soft, sultry. I swallow back a twinge of anxiousness. It wasn’t that long ago that someone so attractive and alluring would have prompted me to nervously blurt out something dumb and self- deprecating. But that was before the God of Genes bestowed this new chassis upon me. Now I channel James Bond, though in these antiestablishment times, it’s not his perfectly groomed, suave, debonair- with- a- license- to- kill vibe that I emulate, but rather his quietly bemused air of self- assurance. It’s an act, to be sure.

But I’ve learned something about acts: if you stay consistent, they can be pretty convincing.

I offer my hand, hearing Sean Connery’s Scottish accent in my mind: “Nice to meet you, Tinsley.”

“And you.” She takes my hand firmly in hers and we shake.

“Tinsley’s a photographer,” Barry says. “She’s making slides of my paintings.”

Tinsley picks up a black- and- silver camera and aims it at a canvas propped against the wall. When she kneels, the ends of her straight blond hair nearly touch the floor and her hiphuggers slide low, revealing a possible absence of intimate apparel.

Barry gives me a nudge. “Got any weed?” “Are bears Catholic?” “Wanna smoke?” he asks Tinsley. “I’m cool, thanks.” She presses her eye against the eyepiece, and the camera’s shutter snaps.

As I follow Barry out of the room, I can’t resist looking back. Tinsley must feel my gaze. Or maybe she expects it. Either way, still kneeling, she glances up from beneath lowered eyelids and smiles coyly.

 

© 2019 by Todd Strasser