‘Dogtag Summer’ keeps kids reading through the summer

Your mother always says that you’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your body.

It isn’t like you mean to be so absentminded. You know that you have responsibilities, commitments, and places to be this summer. You know that. It’s just that there’s so much going on, and you’re trying to pack a lot into your vacation.

Remembering gets hard when you’re a kid who’s busy.

For a girl named Tracy, though, memories could be haunting. They were distant, like she couldn’t quite catch them to examine them properly. But in the new book “Dogtag Summer” by Elizabeth Partridge, remembering comes with a price.

Summer had finally arrived — at least that was how Stargazer thought — but then again, he was always thinking. Of all Tracy’s classmates, Stargazer was the smartest one. He knew something about almost everything.

But he didn’t know about the scooped-out little hole inside Tracy’s heart, the place where something she couldn’t quite figure out was missing.

Five years before, in 1975, she arrived in America with a sign around her neck, exhausted and dirty. She was six years old but was very tiny, an orphan on a planeload of orphans. Her parents always said that “we wanted a daughter and you needed a home,” as if that answered any questions Tracy might’ve had.

And she had plenty of them, but the past wasn’t discussed in her family. All she knew was that her father was a Vietnam veteran and that she was the child of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier.

In Vietnam — she could remember this — they called her con lai, or “half-breed.” Tracy knew that she’d lived in a tiny hut near a river, and that her Grandmother cared for her while her mother was working. As if the memory was ten miles away, she remembered the sound of birds on the river and she had a nagging memory of rice and fish. She wanted to ask her father about those fleeting recollections — were they true? — but she didn’t dare.

And then, while looking for some materials for a project, Tracy and Stargazer came across a box with dogtags inside. Could those tags, etched with a stranger’s name, hold the answer to Tracy’s memories?

Did you ever read a historical novel and wish you could talk to somebody who actually lived during the time in which it’s set?  If you hand your child “Dogtag Summer”, that kind of experience is really possible.

Award-winning author Elizabeth Partridge grabs a real-life thread from recent history and spins it into a war story told from several vantage points. I loved the conviction of all the characters — there’s an authentic mix in here — and the culmination of this story is a stunner. Astute readers may have the ending figured out, but the solving won’t ruin the enjoyment of this fine novel.

If you want to keep your 11-to-16-year-old in reading mode until school starts, this book might just do the trick. “Dogtag Summer” is one she won’t likely forget.

 • The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer.

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