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Five Questions With Elizabeth Partridge

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Apr 24, 2018

Elizabeth PartridgeElizabeth Partridge was an acupuncturist for more than 20 years before closing her medical practice to write full-time. The author of more than 15 books, she is a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner as well as a National Book Award finalist. Her latest work, Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, gives readers a linear, multidimensional history of the war through the personal stories of eight individuals.

Your latest title, Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam, captures one of the most harrowing, complex, and divisive events in history. What inspired you to start writing this book in 2011?

I was very moved when I visited the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in 2011. Touching the names and seeing the enormous sweep of the wall was overwhelming and I began to cry. I thought, Why am I crying? I don't know these men and women. I decided I wanted to write about the memorial. And the best way was to interview Vietnam veterans who were alive and knew people on the memorial. It was a way for me to explore the Vietnam War, and to honor the dead.

How has the shifting political and social landscape influenced the final product?

This is one of those strange cases where life catches up with a book and suddenly makes it more topical. I didn't expect to see our faith in our government shaken again as it was during the Vietnam war. But here we are, with many people out protesting, feeling their voices aren't being heard, that their representatives and senators in Congress are not responsive to their needs. We also have men and women in ongoing military conflicts in the Middle East. What is it like for them to serve in the military? Many of the issues facing our country today were present during the Vietnam War.

How did you create a narrative that’s accessible and personal to a young adult audience, decades removed? And why is it important? 

Boots on the GroundI've always loved personal narratives. To get as close as I could to the impact the war had upon people, I interviewed seven veterans—six who fought in combat or served as medics—and a nurse. Realizing that all wars create refugees, I interviewed a woman who managed to get her mother and three of her siblings out of Vietnam just as Saigon fell. I interspersed these narrative chapters with chapters on the presidents and protestors in the United States. I also had another way to make the work immediate, which was to use photographs throughout every chapter. Even though it has been decades since the war, stories of courage and morality and patriotism and fear and conflict are always compelling.

You’ve expressed excitement about the recent surge in youth-led activism. How do you think educators can best foster civic participation among students?

Great question, and a huge one. I'd like to mention just one idea I find captivating. I really loved interviewing Vietnam veterans for my book, and found they were eager to talk with me about their experiences. Students in 10th grade and above can interview veterans of any war, using audio or video. The interviews are being collected by the Veterans History Project (a project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress).

As a writer, what’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Stick with it. Writing well is a craft, it's not something you are born with. As Jane Yolen famously admonishes, "Butt in Chair."

What can attendees expect from your panel at the ILA 2018 Conference?

Can I just say right off the bat, it's going to be awesome? Four highly opinionated women (three panelists and a great facilitator), passionate about connecting teens to all kinds of literature, are going to give this our best shot. Come see if I'm right.

Elizabeth Partridge will copresent the Putting Books to Work: Older Young Adult (AM) workshop on Monday, July 23, during the ILA 2018 Conference. For more information, visit ilaconference.org.

Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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