by Johanne Seymour
Libre Expression, 2014
It’s the summer of 1968, and Michelle is counting the days until she and her family drive south to the seaside resort of Wildwood, New Jersey, for their annual vacation. For a sixteen-year-old girl from a working-class English suburb of Montreal, this is about as exciting as life gets. For a precious few weeks, she’ll get to sunbathe on the beach and gaze at lifeguards from the boardwalk with her American friend Denise instead of hanging out with the kids from school at the hockey rink in Verdun.
If books could wear hats, Wildwood would have three to choose from. Certainly, the first few pages suggest the reader might be in for a stereotypically airy girl-meets-boy story that glorifies the seemingly endless summers of our youth. However, those in the know will realize that would be very out of character for a practised crime fiction author like Johanne Seymour. Sure enough, Michelle does end up meeting the hunky lifeguard of her dreams, Tom, but it isn’t long before her vacation takes a turn for the worse.
Late one night, walking home alone along the beach after a double-date, Michelle stumbles across a young woman’s body beneath the pier, and catches a glimpse of a hooded figure running away from the scene. As she helps the police with their investigation, Michelle soon starts to wonder whether there is more to Tom than meets the eye. That’s not all, however. Let’s not forget, the story takes place in 1968, and America is in the midst of the Vietnam War. Michelle, like many of the young people she meets in the small beach town, is concerned about conscription and the effects the war is having on their generation.
Vietnam turns out to be a central theme in the novel, in fact. As the rumours fly through the town about who might have killed the girl under the pier, parallels are drawn to a recent murder up the coast in Atlantic City. When Michelle asks a police officer about the victim — “Denise thinks it’s because her husband served in Vietnam … that it’s because of the war” — the officer confirms her suspicions. “Her husband was a veteran. He was suffering from what some psychologists are calling post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s still a relatively little-known condition, and one that not many professionals are keen to recognize.”
While PTSD is something most modern-day readers will have heard about on the TV news, it was likely a very different story in the late sixties. Michelle finds it shocking that a country would send its sons off to war and fail to look after them when they return. “Haven’t they suffered enough from everything they went through over there?” she muses. “Must they also deal with the betrayal of their own country because it doesn’t want to acknowledge their pain?”
Somehow Wildwood, in its 245 pages that turn far too quickly, manages to be a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, and a critique of America’s involvement in Vietnam through the eyes of the generation that may have felt its fallout the strongest. Peppered with song lyrics from the music of the day — from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Léo Ferré and Robert Charlebois — it’s easy to step into Michelle’s world and picture strolling down the boardwalk alongside her. A compelling narrator and a quick pace make Wildwood an easy read that’s hard to put down. Read it in the dead of winter and dream about lazy summer days by the ocean, or save it for the beach in the warmer months. Just don’t walk down by the water alone at night.
Review by David Warriner