THE BOOK: Without Leave
PUBLISHED IN: 2014
THE AUTHOR: Deborah Fleming
THE EDITOR: Carlos Steward
THE PUBLISHER: Black Mountain Press, Asheville, NC
SUMMARY: A man who goes AWOL from the Navy and an artist and college dropout meet and fall in love in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco during the summer of 1967.
THE BACK STORY: This narrative chronicles the stories of two alienated young people during 1967-70—David, who goes AWOL from the Navy where he’d hoped to find training and focus for his life but finds only boredom and disillusionment during deployment on an aircraft carrier, and an artist, Diane, who drops out of college after a rape and the death of the black man she loves—who meet and fall in love in the Haight-Ashbury region of San Francisco in 1967 only to find they cannot escape their past which not only threatens their new-found way of life but also challenges their belief in their ability to free themselves from the society they reject.
Through the trials of hippie life David realizes he cannot be free while a fugitive and Diane realizes she cannot be free in a segregated society at war with itself. After witnessing a near-fatal stabbing, David returns to the Navy with the intention of obtaining a discharge based on mental incompetence; while in the brig prior to court martial, he comes to the conclusion that achieving personal freedom means he must complete his obligation, rejects the Navy’s offer of administrative discharge, and, after telling Diane not to wait for him, serves the remainder of his hitch, performing heroically on another aircraft carrier.
Diane returns to Colorado where she had previously stayed with her best friends, a married couple who separate soon after she arrives, and with the not-yet-divorced husband has an affair which results in pregnancy. Upon learning that he does not want another child, she goes home to Ohio where she has a son. When she tries to finish her degree she is caught up in the campus riots at Ohio State and returns to San Francisco where she once again meets up with David.
WHY THIS TITLE: The title comes from the phrase “absent without leave,” describing a military deserter, but it also suggests incidents in the novel where characters become separated and never see each other again.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: Most people who were young in the 1960s are still alive, and many who did not live through those years want to read about them. The 1960s were some of the most interesting and tumultuous years in American cultural history.
Deborah Fleming uses flashbacks and thought-provoking cultural and psychological exploration to trace the personal growth and relationship of two characters from vastly different life situations. David, a Navy recruit with mixed feelings about both the military and the unpopular war in Viet Nam, goes AWOL in San Francisco in 1967. There he plunges into the life of Diane, a college dropout with a tragic past who, along with her counter cultural friends in a Haight-Ashbury commune, protest the intolerance of society by living outside its rules. The reader travels with these characters across the United States from California to small-town Ohio during the turbulent sixties and from young adulthood to a moving final resolution of personal identity and relationship. An enormous amount of research, both into the military system and the social milieu of the 1960s, clearly went into the framework for the story of David and Diane. The events portrayed at The Ohio State University are disturbingly accurate, and the slowly unraveling trajectories of David and Diane’s relationship as they discover their own true identities are believable and intriguing. (unsigned Amazon review)
Historical Novel Review (2016): Deborah Fleming has set this heartbreaking love story during the turbulent late 1960s, the era of the Vietnam War and student unrest. The details of life on an aircraft carrier and the antics of sailors on shore leave are both mesmerizing and hilarious. The desires, aspirations, and disappointments among the youth of the period are well illustrated. Scenes of life in the commune bring readers into the lives of the residents there, sharing their tokes. Although covered in more detail than seems necessary for the plot, the student riots at Ohio State and the actions of the National Guard are narrated well. In particular, a scene depicting the famous photograph flashed around the world, of a girl kneeling with outstretched arms, is skillfully embedded in the story. Despite the unimpressive cover, the novel would be of great interest to those wanting to learn about this turbulent period, especially members of the younger generation who didn’t live through it.
Midwest Book Review: Exceptionally well written, this deftly crafted novel is consistently compelling from beginning to end and clearly documents author Deborah Fleming as an impressively gifted storyteller. One of those all too infrequent novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book has been finished and set back upon the shelf, “Without Leave” is very highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library General Fiction collections.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Deborah Fleming has published two collections of poetry, two chapbooks, one novel, one book of essays, and four volumes of scholarship. She is editor and director of the Ashland Poetry Press and practices sustainable gardening on her farm in northeast Ohio.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: The novel places brave people in the landscape of the turbulent 1960s—the hippie experience and the antiwar movement—and addresses the existential question of freedom of the will.
Reviewers have commented on the language of the book, but none so far has analyzed its unifying imagery or allusions to myth. If it has a theme, it is that no “right” decision can be made when one is required to take part in an immoral war.
Unlike some novels of the time, this narrative takes the protagonists seriously and tells the story of hippie life in Haight-Ashbury during the summer of 1967 and of a Vietnam-era deserter who returns to the Navy determined to finish his hitch. The story adds to the body of literature of the era. In tone and focus, the narrative most closely resembles Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, without the multiple perspectives of that book.
Some readers have suggested that it belongs among the books that should be made into films.
SAMPLE CHAPTER: works.bepress.com/deborah_fleming
LOCAL OUTLETS: Ashland University Bookstore, Ashland, OH; Main Street Books, Mansfield, OH
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Black Mountain Press website, Ingram Distributor.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Professor of English