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In ‘Focus. Click. Wind’ by Amanda West Lewis, we meet seventeen-year-old Billie Taylor, who we were previously introduced to in ‘These Are Not the Words’ also by Amanda West Lewis. The sad tragedy of her father’s addiction, mental illness and abandonment has left Billie, reeling and bitter and involved way over her head in the anti-war revolution movement of the Vietnam war in New York City 1968. She is searching for purpose, for love (in all the wrong places), and determined to start a photojournalism career.
By 1968, protests against the Vietnam war, its atrocities against civilians and the waste of human life were strong and constant, changing into a social revolution with anarchist tendencies and becoming violent. Photojournalism came to the forefront of news, with the result that the terror, tragedy and loss of life were constant in the media.
And Billie, a senior in high school, but dating a manipulative Columbia University student, is right in the middle of protests as a photographer, following in her father’s footsteps. Police brutality against protestors was also a factor of the time as both Billie and her boyfriend experience.
With her mother too involved with her own life to notice, and Billie too belligerent and determined to be independent, and with the confusing maelstrom of sexual involvement and manipulation by her boyfriend, Billie dives deeper into the revolutionary thinking and mindset of the time. Not learning the lessons of her father’s sad life, Billie is led deeper into 1960’s revolutionary rhetoric and drug use by her university friends who are often stoned on marijuana or more serious drugs.
At times this book leaves the reader feeling like they are watching a train wreck. And Billie is both the train and the wrecking ball. And yet, we are rooting for her. We like her, we wish she wasn’t so mean and belligerent, involved in drugs and sex. We know the atrocities of the Viet Nam war merited strong protest, and deep societal change, but we think that being high and sexually manipulated by an older man is not the way to go about societal change or how to live a successful life.
Finally, her mother decides they need a fresh start and insists they move to Toronto Canada. Billie is furious, amusingly ignorant about Canada and with obnoxious arrogance. She hates everything about her new life until she finds an American group of draft dodgers and deserters and becomes embroiled even deeper in anti-war revolutionary actions.
And Billie’s life and behavior goes from bad to worse. Again, swayed by opportunities to develop a meaningful photojournalism career, and manipulated by older revolutionaries, Billie becomes involved in a plot to blow up a train track to stop the shipment of Agent Orange from Canada to the United States and from there to Viet Nam. And yes, Agent Orange was manufactured in Canada.
It takes a near crisis to stop her and realize that her life is more valuable than the people around her seem to think. She pulls back, matures a bit and finds better ways to channel her protest.
Yes, this is a troubling book, brilliantly written, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of that troubling time in both the United States and Canada. Anyone who lived through this time in the US or Canada will find it absolutely real and true. I lived Windsor Ontario during this time, a city that was part of the underground railroad during slavery and also during this draft dodging time period. The University of Windsor was full of draft dodgers, deserters and anti-war protests. Even in Canada, which was not involved in the war per se, universities were the hotbed of protest. I thank my former mother-in-law for housing a rotating series of draft dodgers and in doing so leading me to know more about this war when I was in high school and university.
This book is not for every teen. It includes drug use, sex, police brutality, and just plain bad behavior all around. But, for senior teens, for university students and adults who want to know what the late 1960’s were about (or be reminded if you were actually there), for teens who need to know that they can stop their own train wreck from happening, this is a compelling, strongly written, highly visual and convincing book.
Focus. Click. Wind. By Amanda West Lewis was published in Canada by Groundwood Books. It is available from them, in bookstores that don’t shirk from selling truthful but difficult books, and at Amazon from the link in the comments section below.