Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, pick up a copy of Sherry Shahan’s book Purple Daze and smell the incense and peppermints. Equally appealing to readers who lived through the 1960s and to those who didn’t but want to know what it was really like, Shahan has created a compelling chronicle of a single tumultuous year: 1965. This particular window to the past is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, Purple Daze features not one main character, but six. Ziggy, Mickey, Cheryl, Nancy, Don and Phil are a group of friends growing up in Los Angeles. The second thing that sets this book apart is the fact that Shahan has chosen to write much of the novel in verse. Our protagonists share their stories through poems, notes, letters, journal entries, and song lyrics. While this format might seem an odd choice from the outside, Shahan’s skill and range engenders a level of intimacy with each character that is surprising given the brief snatches of information shared in a given moment. The reader feels the drama as the paths of these six friends diverge and darken with the weight of the year’s events. Ziggy writes:
34 people died in the riots
1,000 injured: 90 cops, 136 firemen,
10 guardsmen, 23 people from government agencies,
773 civilians and protestors, including Don’s dad.
I know because Bubba tore out newspaper articles
Shahan uses his words to transform an event like the Watts Riots from an entry in the history books into a tragedy that was intensely personal.
Purple Daze underscores the events of the year by opening and closing with twin poems, “It’s 1965” and “It’s 1966.” The change that the country experienced in a single year is reflected not only in the stark differences between the two poems, but in how the characters themselves have transitioned from fun-loving kids into world-worn adults in that same year’s time. As Cheryl writes, “Ziggy storms in like the good old days,” Shahan’s readers feel the loss of innocence just as keenly as Cheryl does. The fast and harrowing ride that was 1965 leaves readers breathless, recalling that Malcolm X was assassinated, the United States sent the first combat troops to Vietnam just as students everywhere began to protest the war, the Civil Rights Movement got a boost from the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Executive Order 11246, and LSD was not yet illegal.
If readers have any lingering doubts about just how personal this book is to Shahan, she has included as appendices a timeline of notable events of the year, a playlist by which to read the book, and a personal interview along with photos from her own life. Her revelation that the character Don is based on her own real-life high school boyfriend—also named Don—seals the deal. For readers, both teens and adults, with an interest in the 1960s, this is an indispensable book that is lovingly crafted by someone who was there, who lived it, and who survived.