According to family lore, one of my older brothers had the wrong date on his birth certificate. The nuns wrote down the next date instead and refused to believe my mother when she pointed it out. Whether that story is true or not, I have long been intrigued by the idea that someone’s chances of dying in Vietnam might have been determined by a clerical error.
I kept remembering that as I listened to this novel. It doesn’t deal with such a mistake, but it does examine how the draft lottery was an arbitrary gamble that the government played with people’s lives. The book focuses on Judy Talton, a college sophomore in 1969 whose mother pressured her into enlisting in the army in exchange for college tuition and a nursing degree. But after her first year in the program, Judy begins to have qualms about the Vietnam War, so she embarks on a careful plan to determine exactly what she believes. Since only one other student on campus knows about her military commitment, she decides to “go undercover” and join a group of freaks (AKA hippies) who oppose the war and are increasingly vocal about it.
Judy quest to resolve her crisis of conscience is complicated by conflicts among various student groups, an attraction to one of the freak leaders, a friendship with a young man who shares the same birth date as hers (causing her to identify with his anxiety over the lottery), a trip to Washington to participate in the largest protest the government had ever seen (at least until then), the mounting tensions over the pending first draft lottery, the explosive news of the Kent State shootings, and the constant fear that either the army or her new friends will discover the double life she is leading.
I enjoyed the book. I’m 8-10 years younger than that generation, so I wasn’t very aware of the explosive events of 1969 at the time, and it was enlightening to live it through Judy’s perspective. There were times I felt that I wanted more descriptions of setting; the book was inside Judy’s head a lot of the time, and I could have done with more concrete details.