In this installment of Page 69,
We put Rita Dragonette's The Fourteenth of September to the test!
What is The Fourteenth of September about?
In 1969, as mounting tensions over the Vietnam War are dividing America, a young woman in college on an army scholarship risks future and family to secretly join the antiwar movement, and is ultimately forced to make a life-altering choice as fateful as that of any Lottery draftee.
Set up Page 69 for us:
This page is the end of a letter that the main character—Judy—originally wrote to her mother, who has now returned it to her edited with caustic comments. Her mother was a World War II nurse who pushed Judy into applying for the army scholarship, which is causing Judy great angst. Her concern is, if by taking the army’s scholarship money, she is complicit in the escalating war that she is beginning to feel is unjust. Judy knows her mother won’t be sympathetic to her dilemma…and that she will have to face her at some point. Judy’s initial letter was an attempt to soften her mother up a bit by offering a hint of her concerns. It’s clear to Judy in this scene that her strategy has backfired, and she’s succeeded only in making her mother angry and suspicious.
Does this page give an accurate sense of what the story and theme are about?
The scene capsulizes the background of the choice that Judy eventually feels she has to make—her Coming of Conscience. Her mother has been at her throughout her childhood about the necessity of going to college and was tremendously relieved when Judy won the scholarship, confident that her future was settled. But Judy feels trapped in this military solution. Not only is she following in her mother’s footsteps, but more significantly, the world is very different than how her patriotic mother sees it. Judy has bargained with herself, through the Tet Offensive, the Chicago Democratic Convention, and more. But now that she’s away from home, among others who are actively protesting the war, she begins to realize she may need to break away from her mother and their joint plan for her future. This scene is the beginning of that rift.
THE FOURTEENTH OF SEPTEMBER
What’s going on?
Her breathing sped up again, and she braced herself as she opened the letter fully and then recoiled, as if from a slap. Her original letter was written over with lines, circles, exclamation points, and question marks, a mosaic of clashing handwriting and violent annotations.
She couldn’t tell where to start and turned the letter sideways to read a sentence written down the margin. She touched the script, feeling the indentations, and pictured her mother’s long fingers strangling the ballpoint.
You’re in your last year before transferring and now, you decide to send WRITTEN communications like this!
She could barely read the comments for all the markings, but it was pretty easy to find the offending sentence, circled heavily: “I haven’t told anyone this semester about the army thing. It’s getting a little uncomfortable, if you know what I mean?”
No, I don’t know what you mean!
She felt what she had written had been pretty mild, actually. She had just tucked the two lines in, after the news about how Maggie was getting better about stretching the phone cord out into the hall and closing the door when Danny called after ten o’clock.
She had followed it with a diverting message about how she got a B+ on her chemistry exam though she felt she would have been lucky to get a C, and how much she liked her new dorm, which was co-ed with lots of students from the city.
She scanned the rest of the letter, seeing big circles around the words co-ed and city.
Watch yourself and who you’re associating with!
So much for trying to soften her mother up. She should have known better. Judy moved down to the comments at the end.
You’re questioning the very institution paying for your education? After all we went through? Am I going to have to listen to this all year?
“No, you won’t have to listen to a damn thing,” Judy answered out loud, vowing never to write again. What’ll you do then, Mom, take out an ad in the CIU Clarion announcing my name, rank, and serial number? She ducked inadvertently, then shook herself, annoyed that even though she knew in advance the button her mother would push, she let it get to her anyway.
Judy was about to refold the letter when she noticed way down in the corner a scribbled Mom, as if her mother had nearly left it unsigned and then thought better of it.
She leaned back against the tree and watched the light flicker across the water leading back toward campus. She knew she would be expected to write something in return to acknowledge “message received.” She toyed with two-word responses: “Got it!” Or even, “Roger that!” But then she thought she might just stay silent and let her mother twist. She stood up, brushed the damp autumn leaves from her butt, and followed the lights back up the hill to the dorm.
Rita Dragonette is a writer who, after spending nearly thirty years telling the stories of others as an award-winning public relations executive, has returned to her original creative path. The Fourteenth of September, her debut novel (She Writes Press 9/2018), is based upon personal experiences on campus during the Vietnam War, and she is currently at work on three other books: an homage to The Sun Also Rises about expats chasing their last dream in San Miguel de Allende, a World War II novel based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women, and a memoir in essays. She lives and writes in Chicago, where she also hosts literary salons to showcase authors and their new books to avid readers.