Review: Purple Daze by Sherry Shahan

Sherry Shahan's website here // $11.96 from {amazon}
Publisher: Running Press Kids (March 22, 2011)
Hardcover: 208 pages
Source: Publisher
Purple Daze is a young adult novel set in suburban Los Angeles in 1965. Six high school students share their experiences and feelings in interconnected free verse and traditional poems about war, feminism, riots, love, racism, rock 'n' roll, high school, and friendship.

Although there have been verse novels published recently, none explore the changing and volatile 1960's in America— a time when young people drove a cultural and political revolution. With themes like the costs and casualties of war, the consequences of sex, and the complex relationships between teens, their peers, and their parents, this story is still as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.
Rating: View my rating system.

My Thoughts:
I picked up Purple Daze with some apprehension; I’ve only read one book written in verse (which I didn't enjoy) and I’ve seen authors struggle with developing the voices and side stories of more than one narrator, not to mention six. So I didn’t have high expectations when starting Purple Daze, but I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised by its unique and gritty glimpse into America during the Vietnam War.  

I’ve previously brought up Spielberg’s girl in red, and Sherry Shahan utilizes this method perfectly. Of course, I’ve learned about the atrocities of the Vietnam War in history class, but that’s worlds apart from seeing the same event through the eyes of six struggling American teenagers: Ziggy, Nancy, Cheryl, Don, Phil, and Mickey. While the characters themselves seemed largely one-sided, I think the importance lies in the role they play. They either seemed driven by sex and drugs or by achieving some impossible ideal, whether it was love or an end to the war, and both spoke loudly of the general hopelessness of the time. However, on the technical aspects of narration, the three had approximately equal book-time at the beginning but Ziggy, Nancy, and Don seemed to fade away towards the end. I really would have liked to see those three characters fleshed out more, and though I could kind of relate to Cheryl, Phil, and Mickey, again, they seemed mainly just there to represent different experiences and different mentalities.

Despite my initial misgivings about the verse format, I found myself gradually falling in love with it. I don’t know how, but I do know why. The snippets from letters, notes, and thoughts were like a constant stream of consciousness that I was unconsciously drawn into. The format really suits the frequent changes in POV and the few choice words went met-and-surpassed “sufficient.” They contributed to that sense of a “silent horror,” a horror that doesn’t need to be explicitly stated but is simply felt. (So it goes without saying that my favorite snippets were those of Phil’s experience on the warfront.) I definitely found the verse towards the end more moving than at the beginning, but perhaps that was meant to reflect the increasing agitation during the Vietnam War. Sherry Shahan also complements the verse with occasional notices or a brief, intriguing summary of a famous person at the time, such as Malcolm X, that gave some historical insight and provided useful background for the story.

“I keep on having this dream.
A short, sharp sound.


When I turn, a squat brown boy
jabs a gun in my gut.

Click! Click!

He swings the butt at my head.
I empty a clip in his face.

Bones fly. Chip by chip.
A tooth.

Another round of shoot-a-gook.

I wake up sweatin’ blood.

God forgive us.”

- pg. 168, Phil's POV

My final complaint is that I felt the ending was rushed, as in everything worked out a bit too perfectly and a bit too quickly after all the angst and suffering. I may just make an exception this time and welcome a character dying or befalling some great misfortune.

And my last comment to anyone who’s read the book: I applaud Cheryl for her decision on Don. I’m happy to see someone recognize that kind of “love” for what it is.

** Note: The language is pretty crude, but quite necessary, so if you're offended easily, you probably shouldn't read Purple Daze.

Romance: There is some romance, but it receives pretty equal with all the many other aspects: family, violence, school, personal discovery, etc. Some mentions of making out, sex, but nothing explicit.
Cover: 4.0 -- I actually really like this one for it's 60's feel. It kind of relates, I suppose... but mainly I just find it aesthetically pleasing and quirky.
Writing:  4.0
Characters: 3.0
Plot: 3.5

Bottom Line: Purple Daze is a raw, unique, and no holds barred glimpse into a grief and angst ridden period of American history. A closer connection with the characters and a faster dive into the central turmoil would have really made Purple Daze amazing for me, but I still have to congratulate Sherry Shahan on a powerful debut and will definitely watch for her works in the future.