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By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Coyote Weather: A Novel of the 1960s
by Amanda Cockrell
Northampton House Press, 2023
Coyote Weather is a novel by an acquaintance. We met briefly at a book introduction event for a mutual friend. When she learned that I am the author of two books about the Vietnam War, she asked if I would take a look at her upcoming book and let her know what I thought.
Amanda Cockrell has a Master's degree in English and creative writing from Hollins University, an institution that is highly respected for its writing programs. In fact, Ms. Cockrell was the director of the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) program in children's and adolescent literature at Hollins for many years and remains involved in the writing community at that school. She grew up in the Ojai Valley of California, and has written that Coyote Weather is "for the Ojai boys who went to war and didn't come back, or came back someone else, and for the ones who didn't go and were marked by it nonetheless." Coyote Weather is a California term for weather that bakes everything dry, brown and ready to catch fire. During those times, hungry coyotes are known to come down out of the hills to eat people's cats and small dogs.
Coyote Weather succeeds in offering a realistic portrait of the realities we all had to deal with in the middle to late sixties. The war in Vietnam is far away, but it hangs like a giant dark umbrella over every aspect of life in those days. The story begins in 1967. Randy Ottley is in basic training, but his essence, his soul, sometimes escapes the confines of his body to float low and fast to home. The war is a dividing line that "scrapes everyone's nerves raw." Graduating from high school, Jerry refuses to make plans for the future because he is concerned that the Vietnam War is just a symptom, and the coming together of that war in Vietnam, the Cold War, and the ridiculous "duck and cover" atomic bomb drills in school are all indications that there won't be a future. He has no purpose, but is taking a minimal number of classes at the community college, just to stay clear of the draft. With nothing to do, he drops by the neighborhood arts center where a class in Irish folk dancing is taking place, and meets Ellen. She is, of course, young and beautiful, with long hair, the epitome of California fashion in 1967. She attends a college in Virginia, and while she is home for the summer she is working as a cub reporter for the local newspaper. Ellen dismisses Jerry's pessimism as she carefully plays by all the Establishment's rules. Well, almost.
If I write too much, I will give away the story line. Suffice to say that it is pertinent to the 1960s, fast-moving, and plausible. I found myself rooting for the main characters. The story line includes many of the obligatory happenings of the sixties, from a protest march to the draft, struggles with the generation gap, a commune, suicide, and far more. Once you're into the story, this is a page turner.
Surprisingly, the cast of characters are familiar. They will usually resemble someone you know, or knew back then. The action comes fast and hard, sometimes with calamitous consequences. The author has shaken the crumbs from her brain to recreate so many of the thoughts and ideals we felt when we were young, and daring us to revisit those challenging community sentiments and hard-drawn conclusions from so long ago. This is a nostalgic story, but it swoops and swirls across a broad spectrum of near-psychedelic themes that will leave you, in today's political and social environments, wondering what the hell happened. It is a thought-provoking look back at where we came from that will encourage you to examine what you have become today in relation to the person you were back then. It is not for the faint-of-heart.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.