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Book Review: The Fourteenth of September

The Fourteenth of September. Rita Dragonette. She Writes Press, September 18, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 377 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

The Fourteenth of Septemberis a glimpse into the life of a coed during the tumultuous draft lotteries of 1969-1970. At Central Illinois University, Private First Class Judy Talton has a lot to consider as she walks in her mother’s footsteps. An army nurse who served in World War II, Judy’s mother pushes her oldest daughter into the one avenue that would get Judy out of their narrow lower-middle-class lifestyle and into the bigger and better world. Their timing is terrible, as Judy, scheduled for nurses training through Walter Reed Hospital, will most certainly be sent to Vietnam once her education is finished.

During her sophomore year at age nineteen, Judy jumps out of her shell to force open her own eyes and heart about the student protest movement. Can students—can she—really change the world? Is that what life is all about?

Rita Dragonette, a Chicago author and former public relations executive, uses her experience of being on campus during the turbulent years when the lotteries were being held as the structure for her debut novel.

Written in three consecutive parts, the novel traverses a transformative period in which Judy meets a dynamic campus leader, David, and his cadre of dedicated fellow rebels seeking to make their voices heard. Vida becomes her closest friend. They want to stop what they view as a senseless war, stop the killing through any means, even violence, and join the outcry from campuses across the States.

Once Judy makes her fateful decision on her birthday, September 14, to immerse herself in counterculture, she can no longer go back to her former naive self. “She was starting to feel there was an incredible groundswell everywhere she looked,” Dragonette writes, “and in everything she listened to about love and understanding and a common agreement that there was no longer any need for war. The army was wrong and Vida was right. She felt the world had started to turn a corner, and was convinced she didn’t want to be left out of it.”

As the story progresses, Judy tries to stay out of any limelight that will betray any or all of the fronts she’s fighting: her friend Pete in the ROTC who reminds her that she made a vow to serve her country; her new friends who are practicing what they believe with a fervor she partially fears; and her mother who cannot accept Judy’s need to see both sides of the story. 

“This is a different war,” Judy tries to get through to her mother.

In Part II, student groups from CIU join thousands of others who travel to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to demand President Nixon hear their opinion. By Part III, the second semester opens upon reality. Until now, the students have been protesting for something they’ve heard, read about, or watched on television. When the lottery starts, the war hits home, especially when Judy sees her male counterpart with the same birthday, Wil, receive the lowest draft number, meaning a certain call to report for service. Wil chooses to accept his fate, prompting Judy to continue to reexamine her own choices. When betrayed, Judy has more decisions to make, which shows the extent to which she’s willing to go to end the violence and the killing in her own place and time.

This story is beautifully written with compassionate and thoughtful narrative and engaging characters who play out all the angst of the era set on a Midwestern college campus when America was at its most vulnerable. Dragonette show us what we can be, both in our best and our worst. The story contains liberal drug use, sexual situations, and language that parents may want to discuss with their early high-school-aged children prior to reading.


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