A lot happens in a year, but some years are more memorable than others. 1969 was such a year. Protests against the Vietnam War continued, the first manned space vehicle, Apollo 11, landed on the moon, an upstate New York town became the site for a massive rock concert, the Stonewall uprising ushered in the Gay Rights Movement, and something called the internet was created. Truly, if the sixties had begun quietly, the decade was going out with a bang. (A new six-part docuseries highlighting 1969’s groundbreaking change will premiere on ABC on Tuesday, April 23.)
Nicole J. Burton wisely chose the year as a backdrop for her novel, Adamson’s 1969. Those who lived through those years will recall the sights and sounds of that era, as well as the cultural divide that threatened to tear the country apart. We observe the year’s events through the eyes of Adamson Henry, a British teenager who is living in Massachusetts with his parents and younger siblings. Adamson’s father, George, works as an engineer for Dynamic Electric, while his mother, Victoria, tries to deal with her unhappiness by drinking. When George is transferred (again), this time to Italy, Adamson stays behind in the U.S. to attend University of Bridgeport. The next 12 months finds Adamson falling in and out of love, tripping out on various drugs, traveling to California in a VW van (of course!), and then back to the East Coast for Woodstock.
Burton brings the year and her characters alive in an entertaining read that will be nostalgic for some and educational for others. Burton is the author of more than 20 plays that have been produced at the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, and many other venues. We asked her some questions about Adamson’s 1969. Here are her answers.
Why the year 1969?
The late sixties were an exciting time in my early life. Like Adamson’s family, mine immigrated to the United States and 1969 was our “new beginning year.” When I started researching 1969 for the novel, I was bowled over by how many important events occurred that year. I decided to make 1969 Adamson’s first full year in his adopted country.
How did you come up with the idea of arranging the book by months?
My husband, who’s an artist about Adamson’s age, printed out a detailed chronology of the late 1960s for me while I was researching. He loved the 1960s and I learned a lot from him about the American experience and borrowed a few of his stories in crafting my own. As a playwright, I’m always looking at dramatic structure, and because I’d been reading a chronology, I decided to weave the story of Adamson’s relationships around this scaffold of remarkable historic events.
Why did you choose to have the year seen through the eyes of a British teen?
I’d experienced being a young British immigrant to the U.S. People nowadays would not believe how different our countries used to be despite our speaking a similar language. Before the era of mass communications, our cultures were quite separate. In the novel, I wanted to convey the immigrant experience, and a character in his late teens offers both independence and fresh eyes. I thought that seeing the world through a young immigrant photographer’s lens (pun intended) could be instructive and amusing.
What are your memories of that year?
My life changed completely when we moved to the U.S. in 1968. Everything here was different: food, language, music, climate, school, politics, fashion, terrain, everything. In fact, little was similar to what I was used to. Though Adamson’s 1969 is fiction, the premise of a young man getting stranded when his family immigrates here then suddenly leaves actually happened to my older brother. I left with my family so I spent the first half of 1969 in the U.S., and the second half in northern Italy in a rural area. Living near London, then in suburban New England, then in rural Italy in one year offered quite a contrast. It was dramatic, confusing, and fun.
Your descriptions of Woodstock are quite vivid. Were you there? If not, what research did you do to recreate those scenes?
I did a lot of research about Woodstock—reading books and interviews, watching films, and of course, listening to the festival album. In addition, my husband was at Woodstock. He took his girlfriend, brother, and cousin and they drove from DC to Upstate New York in a classic VW Beetle. Like Adamson, my husband didn’t stay to the end of the concert because he couldn’t deal with the mud and conditions but he joyfully retells his Woodstock story and gave me permission to borrow liberally from it. I have also attended many festivals and concerts and filled in from my own catalog.
Adamson decides to stay in the U.S. and go to college. Why did his parents not put up resistance to the plan, even though they would be far away in Italy and Adamson hasn’t been doing well in school? Does it represent a different style of parenting or family dysfunction?
Adamson’s parents represent a style of parenting from another era and culture. Adamson had attended British boarding school from a young age, a sort of “boot camp” preparation for independent adulthood that the British middle- and upper-class valued as advantageous and normal. Thus, leaving Adamson in the U.S. is not as strange to them as it would appear to us. The U.K. educational system was totally different and Adamson would have had to repeat 12th grade with a different cohort if he had returned to his U.K. school and he likewise couldn’t go with them to Italy and attend college there. That said, Adamson’s parents are consumed with their own needs and challenges and seem unaware and not empathetic toward how traumatic life would be for Adamson alone in such an alien environment.
Adamson, a British citizen, was in danger of being drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Did that happen to many young people like him during the war?
There was confusion in the public mind over whether non-citizens were subject to the draft, and it’s realistic that Adamson’s father would think that his son couldn’t be drafted because he was a U.K. citizen. In fact, the U.S. Selective Service confirmed to me that young men who were lawful permanent residents like Adamson (Green Card holders) were subject to the draft during the Vietnam War. I don’t know how many non-citizens got caught up in the draft. Historically, immigrants serve in the U.S. military in greater numbers than they represent in the population, partly because it’s been an easier way to gain citizenship, but that wasn’t Adamson’s concern. As Adamson’s experience bears out, many young men at the time were seeking ways to avoid being sent to Vietnam; some joined branches of the service in which they’d be less likely to be sent into combat, others fled to Canada and Sweden, others claimed Conscientious Objector status or became fugitives. Adamson could have returned to the U.K. legally but he would have been in defying U.S. law and might have been arrested when he returned. The draft was a scary business for a young man to handle.
What does Alistair represent to Adamson? Freedom? A carefree attitude and lifestyle? And was that perception wrong because of what happens to Alistair?
Adamson’s best friend, Alistair, sports the carefree approach to life that Adamson wishes he could assume but doesn’t have the confidence to carry off. Alistair’s charm seems to be a passport to the good life except of course it isn’t. Adamson gets his first glimpse of this when they meet up in California and he learns that Alistair isn’t quite who he appears to be. Yet their friendship and love endure. Alistair’s fate represents Adamson’s sudden, shocking encounter with “the mystery of life” that all of us eventually face. What a year.
Author photo: Carol Clayton Photography