Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 25, 2022

Stardust and Golden, by Doug McEachern

It’s surprising, really, that there is still so little Australian literature about activism to end Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War.  For some of the generation that was impacted by it, it left scars that have never gone away, and while Anzac Day brings up stories of returned soldiers still suffering the effects of that war, there’s very little acknowledgement anywhere about the heroism of those tried to end it.  That struggle tore families apart and for some that estrangement lasted decades.

Perhaps this neglected aspect of our literary story is because between 1965 and 1972, conscription in Australia directly impacted only 15,000 conscripts and their families.  Most of the rest of the population of 12 million-odd ignored 202 deaths on active service and 1279 wounded* and kept voting to support the war until 1972, going blithely about their lives without any concern for those national servicemen, who were cynically conscripted when they were too young to vote.  Summer’s Gone by Charles Hall (2014) captures this insouciance well, showing the reader that for many, the Vietnam War was so far off-stage that they had no understanding of its impact.

*Needless to say, Australian casualties are swamped by casualty numbers for civilians and military in Vietnam.  Numbers are contested, but all the estimates are horrific.

Family conflict about the Vietnam War makes an appearance in some novels, such as Leaving Owl Creek by Sandy Gordon, and the impact on young lives is central to Kristina Olsson’s novel Shell in which a family is estranged for decades.  Estrangement also features in some non-fiction titles about activism such as Not Going to Vietnam by Garrie Hutchinson.  Mirranda Burton’s Underground is an attempt to bring a story of activism against the war in a form palatable to YA readers, but there are unfortunate elements in the text best countered by reading the definitive history in Save Our Sons by Carolyn Collins.

Vietnamese refugees and their descendants in Australia OTOH have a different perspective on the war. Although there is a large, well-established Vietnamese community here, there are few Australian novels that explore that different perspective. These include Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore; and The Lady of the Realm which sites the war amid the long history of conflict in that country.

Novels that include characters suffering from war-related PTSD from Vietnam include Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones, while The Rainy Season by Myfanwy Jones is about a daughter’s search for  father who went missing there during the war.

There is, as you’d expect, a growing number of NF titles about the War, some of which are on my TBR.  And while women were not ever subjected to conscription, Our Vietnam nurses provides a glimpse into the contribution that they made.

However, apart from Some Here Among Us by Kiwi Peter Walker, I don’t know of much fiction about the protest movements at all.  So I was pleased to come across Doug McEachern’s debut novel Stardust and Golden. (The title is an allusion to a Joni Mitchell song.) The author profile at UWAP tells us that he is a ‘late bloomer’, achieving his PhD in Creative Writing after retirement from his academic career.  Significantly for the theme of Stardust and Golden, which is set in the 1960s, it turns out that his adolescent ambition to become a writer was led astray by the political urgency of the campaigns against the Vietnam War and conscription. 

Bookended by chapters in the present day, the novel is narrated by the central character Mark David who is revisiting his university years in 1969.  He and his mate Stryder wait with trepidation for the conscription ballot which is to decide their fate.  Neither of them support the war in general or conscription in particular but are undecided about what to do.  Their options include failing to register, either quietly or overtly to make a protest, with a penalty of two years in gaol if they are convicted.  They could try registering as conscientious objectors, though the courts are reluctant to confer that status without a long history of pacificism.  Or, they could register, and then fade into a quiet life if they aren’t called up, or if they’re unlucky and their number comes up, defer on the grounds of study commitments for as long as possible.  (It’s 1969 and they sense that the war is coming to an end, but it may not come soon enough.) If all else fails, there’s the option of disappearing overseas, but that involves severing all contact with family and friends.

For these two characters what is equally important is not just their own fate, but the fate of others and the need to protest effectively to bring the whole hateful system to an end. The contrast in their personalities, however, affects what they do.  Mark is a fatalist governed by inertia, while Stryder is an optimist and has more initiative.

As the future looms, that optimism  begins to look shaky:

‘We’ll be okay,’ Stryder said. ‘We’re not going to be called up.  I’ve never won a prize in any lottery before.  Why should my luck change?’ He turned to me, knowing I disagreed. ‘We’ll play this silly game, but we’re not going into the army. We’re not going to support this war. We’ll do anything we can to stop it.’

This was the most explicit speech I’d ever heard Stryder make about Vietnam and conscription.  Normally he was so optimistic it was scary.

‘We won’t be called up.  We’ll organise mass protests and the government will change its mind.  The government will lose the next election.’

I didn’t think Stryder would get called up either; his charmed, privileged life would continue on its inevitable course.  For me, on the other hand registration was just a step on the way to jail. (p.37)

Enmeshed with these political concerns, which are reluctantly accepted by parents or vehemently rejected, there are the usual entanglements of life for young adults.  A shared household called The Chasm is the setting for a motley bunch of students, who behave well or badly according to their personalities.  There is music, drug abuse, drunkenness and late night parties, and not enough study going on.  There is also sex and its consequences, and the stress and tension of these become too much for one of the housemates.  There are rowdy meetings debating the philosophy and effectiveness of radical activism v peaceful protest, and there is also a street protest where the naïve young people discover just how ruthless the police can be.

In addition to the generational conflicts depicted in Stardust and Golden, there is also class distinction. Mark David is a scholarship student at a time when most university students had wealthy parents to pay the fees. (Tertiary fees were abolished by the Whitlam Government that also stopped the war and conscription, in 1972.)  Having wealthy parents was an asset if they were willing and able to contest wrongful arrests in court, and/or pay the fines for summary offences at protests.

There is a melancholy undercurrent in the novel, which reinforces the long-lasting enmities of the era, so apparent when in the present day Mark encounters Stryder’s still angry mother in an aged care home. Stardust and Golden is well structured to make room for these persisting effects while the writing in the main body of the novel is a vivid and authentic portrayal of the era.

These things happened. I personally know of a court case where one of the defendants was represented by a QC, and the rest were not.  I know of a case where estrangement lasted twenty years, and another where the hostility persisted until death.  I know of activists from within the army whose mental health was ruined by punitive strategies to suppress dissent.  There’s unacknowledged collateral damage too.  One of my friends could not cope with her conscripted husband being on active service and tried to take her life. She ended up in a mental hospital where she was given shock treatment for depression.  I know about the confusion and distress of younger siblings witnessing but not understanding the conflict, and I know about the distress of parents seeing their families torn apart.

The generation that lived through these things is passing on, and before long the opportunity to interview those with lived experience will be gone. So apart from the qualities that make Stardust and Golden a fine novel, I’d like to see it get more air in the hope that a serious novelist somewhere will be inspired to bring more of these stories into the light.

Author: Doug McEachern
Title: Stardust and Golden
Design by Ten Deer Sigh
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2018
ISBN: 9781742589732, pbk., 208 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from UWAP $24.99


Responses

  1. Lisa, there’s an excellent NF book about nurses and other women involved in the Vietnam war. It’s called Minefields and Miniskirts: Women and the Vietnam War by Siobhan McHugh. McHugh is a radio journalist and oral historian who interviewed many women for the book. Extremely informative and very moving.

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    • Thanks, Teresa. I just looked this up at Goodreads because the title rang a bell, and it seems to have sunk almost without a trace. It’s not clear exactly when it was published, it lists both 1993 and 2005 as the date of first publication. I’ll have a bit of a hunt around, but really, I’m more interested in the missing story of the activists who led the struggle to end the war.

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      • PS The NLA says 1993…
        https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2744029

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        • PPS It’s not in either of my libraries…

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      • It was first published in 1993, and reissued in an expanded edition in 2005.

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        • Ah, thanks… I’ll fix the data at GR. Do you know who the publisher of the 2nd edition was?

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          • The second edition was published by Lothian Books, Melbourne. The preface to the second edition notes that a section on Australian women in the anti-Vietnam war movement has been dropped, so it would be worth your chasing down a copy of the first edition.

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            • How interesting! (As in peculiar.) Why would they have done that? I wonder if it tells us something about the (John Howard) zeitgeist?

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              • In the Preface to the Lothian edition, Siobhan writes: ‘The economics of republishing demanded a significantly shorter text … It [women in the anti-war movement] was also an area that had received attention from others, whereas the stories of women in the war zone and the wives and families of veterans broke new ground on first publication, are are still rarely tapped.’

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                • Well, I suppose that makes sense, but I wonder what books there are about the women in the anti-war movement? I mean, I’ve read the one about Save Our Sons, but I don’t know of any others, other than the graphic novel Underground which is limited by its format, and it lacks nuance.
                  PS Thanks for sharing all this with me, I appreciate it.

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                • You’re welcome!

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  2. I have always been wary of reading books or watching movies of the Vietnam War years. Don’t want my preconceptions challenged, probably.

    My father’s view was that I should enter the ballot and then just keep studying if I was called up. It was one of my arguments with him, that he wouldn’t even stand up for his own beliefs and insist that I volunteer. Of course I was a non complier and we were estranged for a couple of years, but he always just pretended that it hadn’t happened.

    The only Vietnam War book I’ve read and enjoyed id Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, which I know you’ve read too. Actually, Unlike the Graham Greene one too. But I think I’ll get through life without ever having seen a Vietnam War movie.

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    • I may be wrong, which is why I’d like to read more about this, but I think there was an implacability on both sides. I mean, there are many things that cause conflict between the generations… it’s perhaps inevitable because the world changes and even within families people embrace or reject those changes according to all sorts of factors. But most of them are issues that dissipate and things move on.
      But there were fundamental human rights involved in this issue, as there were in the marriage equality issue. To discover when you’re young, and not very good at managing interpersonal conflict, that your parent doesn’t understand that and opposes it, solidifies the disdain on the ‘right’ side and the incomprehension on the other. And that’s compounded by the myth of the happy Meadowlea family so that forces within the family prefer estrangement to conflict. Ironically, they’d rather have peace that deal with the issue.

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  3. […] McEachern’s Stardust and Golden (2018) (Lisa’s review): on […]

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