Sex, drugs and the Vietnam War come to life in Cal Poly alumna and local author Sherry Shahan’s new novel “Purple Daze.”
The book focuses on characters Mickey, Cheryl, Don, Nancy, Ziggy and Phil, whose lives are affected by turbulent events in 1965. When one teen is drafted and another enlists in the Navy, the friendship of six friends is torn apart.
Shahan based the characters on her and her high school friends’ lives in the ’60s, she said. In fact, she was inspired to write “Purple Daze” after discovering a shoebox in her closet full of letters from a friend who fought in Vietnam. The letters prompted her to start sketching out characters based on her experiences.
Shahan chose to write most of the novel in short, free verse poems from each character’s unique points of view. This unusual style of storytelling allows the reader to get a better sense of the attitude of the friends she used as inspiration, she said.
“We really were kind of a crazy bunch, and their voices come out in different ways,” Shahan said.
The lives of each character throughout the novel are deeply affected by U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Whether they are fighting abroad, like Phil who learns to carry his M-16 everywhere with him except the shower, or left at home, like Nancy, who falls into a deep depression when her boyfriend is drafted; each has their own story to tell.
Cal Poly American history professor Joel Orth said Nancy’s story is typical of teens affected by the draft in the 1960s.
“You could imagine if your brothers or friends were potentially going to be drafted or sent to Iraq or Afghanistan,” Orth said. “It would be so much more personal.”
Since teens were exposed to the reality of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the ’60s, many were personally affected by the period of political and social turmoil. But it was an exciting time to be a teen, Orth said.
“Certainly growing up in that era, being a teenager in the 1960s, you would have a sense that being involved could actually lead to something,” Orth said.
For example, many young people found themselves deciding between joining the military or protesting U.S. involvement overseas.
In “Purple Daze,” Shahan weaves the current events in among the storylines of each character, with passages on military operations, excerpts from newspaper articles and timely speeches.
In one tableau, Shahan includes excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “How Long, Not Long,” which was delivered on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Shahan said she originally intended to use King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but it was from the year before. She eventually came across the other speech, which she preferred because it was less familiar to readers.
The historical details are kept to a minimum, however, and only provide a backdrop to the stories of the teens, Shahan said.
“I didn’t want the history to overtake the story of the characters,” Shahan said. “And ultimately, it’s about the characters.”
The characters often proved to provide more historical detail themselves since the novel contains stories about life in the military, taken from the experiences of real veterans.
Shahan turned to local Vietnam War veteran Phillip Manor to help her get accurate accounts, and in turn, he gave her details of what serving in Vietnam was like for him.
“He’s the one who told me they put condoms over the muzzle of their rifle because there was so much humidity in Vietnam that they didn’t want them to rust,” Shahan said.
Shahan, in turn, loosely based the character of Phil on Manor. Throughout the book, Phil, who has been drafted into service, writes letters to his friends recounting how dangerous and dirty life in Vietnam is.
“Vietnam was the real deal,” Manor said. “It wasn’t spit and polish. There wasn’t any of that because it was war.”
Aside from correcting a few inaccuracies, Manor said he didn’t have to change “Purple Daze” much when Shahan first asked him to read over it. The novel was almost finished, and he was impressed by the depth and realism of each character.
“I’ve seen so many people I’ve known in my life, all different ages, in these characters — in these six characters,” Manor said.
Anyone who reads “Purple Daze” can find a character they identify with, Manor said, even if the action is set more than 40 years ago.
This is exactly what Shahan intended when writing “Purple Daze.” She said she wanted modern teens to easily relate to the characters, even though she drew upon her high school friends from the ’60s to write about.
“I would like to think that there is a universal quality about the characters,” Shahan said. “They still have issues with parents, with relationships, with school.”