Sherry Shahan’s Purple Daze takes place in 1965, but if you change a few names, it could almost be 2011.
The characters of Purple Daze speak for themselves, without any authorial intervention, through journal entries, poems, and letters. Shahan then interlaces their stories with the stories of the year itself: the assassination of Malcolm X, the Los Angeles race riots, another 50,000 American troops heading to Vietnam, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.-led march to Montgomery, Alabama.
The stories of our generation will be set against a similar backdrop: the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the LGBT community’s struggle for the right to marry.
Purple Daze is a powerful book on its own, but the haunting similarities between past and present events make it even more so.
Even aside from the larger issues this group of teens faces in the United States of 1965, they struggle with their relationships and friendships, school and family.
Ziggy wants nothing more than to settle down with her boyfriend Mickey and have a baby, but Mickey runs off to the Navy, in essence dumping her. In her depression, she drops out of school and starts using drugs.
Phil, one of Ziggy’s friends, gets drafted and sent to Vietnam, and his girlfriend Nancy stops writing him. Only his friend Cheryl, who writes to him and Mickey regularly, keeps him grounded and prevents him from getting lost in the physical and mental hell of the war he’s fighting.
Don wants nothing more than to have sex with Cheryl, but she doesn’t want to get pregnant, and she breaks up with him when he gives in and sleeps with another girl.
The use of poetry gives the reader a direct line to the characters’ emotions without exposition or excessive description. At the height of Ziggy’s depression, after she performs a coat hanger abortion on herself and ruins her relationship with her best friend, she writes simply:
My motel sign:
Those four words say more about her emotional and mental state than entire pages in most prose novels, and Purple Daze is full of moments like that, moments that bowl you over with their depth and simplicity.
It was truly difficult to watch relationships in the book fall apart, and incredibly uplifting to watch the characters patch them back together, or form new and better ones. For those used to narrative prose, it might be difficult to follow along with the characters’ sometimes scattered thoughts and disjointed musings, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
Kelly Lynn Thomas is a writer obsessed with storytelling, tea, and Star Wars. Her day job is newspaper editor, but fiction and travel writing are her first loves. Read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com.