All posts by Liza Ketchum

Marsha Qualey’s Hometown explores when Americans didn’t forgive or forget Vietnam draft resisters

HometownBookCoverThe Iraq War wasn’t the first time personalities and patriotism clashed. Emotional wounds from past wars are slow to heal.

Friend Marsha Qualey authored an inspirational novel, Hometown. She crafted the tale of a Vietnam draft resister who stayed in Canada, but whose son faced a town’s long-simmering resentment over his father’s past choices during the eve of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

I liked Marsha’s book. I hope you will, too.


All in the Family Christmas episode
explored life as a ‘draft dodger’ in Canada

LK_AllInTheFamily_blog-graphicHow could a family celebrate Christmas when a son took refuge in another country, trying to avoid getting drafted? In Out of Left Field, Brandon’s father and grandfather held different views about Vietnam. Such opposing beliefs tore some families apart.

The popular TV show All in the Family aired such a story about a young man who fled to Canada to avoid the war. “The Draft Dodger” first aired Christmas night, Dec. 25, 1976.

How did it feel to recreate such politically-charged drama? Relive the moment with insights from the performers supplying that Emmy Award-winning episode. 

‘Young Adult’? ‘Adult’? Or, does it matter?

Out of Left FieldOver the past year, as books for young readers have attracted a wide audience, a spirited and sometimes heated discussion has taken place in blogs and other media, focused on who should read what. (The word “should” in relation to any book makes me queasy.) But I’ve thought about this issue a lot during readings and signings for my new novel, Out of Left Field. According to my publisher, it’s a book for young adult readers.

Or is it?

Soon after Out of Left Field was published, a friend approached me, book in hand. She had read the novel and enjoyed it, but wondered if the novel would be appropriate for her granddaughter. “How old is she?” I asked—assuming the child must be young.

“Thirteen,” she told me. She then added, sotto voce, “The book deals with some dark subjects. It seems very adult.”

Dark subjects? Okay: War and death; family secrets and the meaning of family—issues familiar to many young readers. Other themes include baseball, politics, and the importance of friendship. “Has your granddaughter read The Hunger Games or seen the movies?” I asked.

My friend admitted, with some embarrassment, that the child had, in fact, read the series and seen the film, so perhaps she could also handle my book. What I didn’t tell her was that, while writing the novel, I didn’t think about my audience. When I heard Brandon’s voice in my head and began to write his story, I knew he was about to turn eighteen. If this meant the book would be categorized as YA, fine.

But after it was published, I wondered if it would also appeal to a younger age group. In November, I spoke to a group of kids who were part of a parent/child book group at the Cambridge Public Library. Thanks to James Paterson’s grant to one of my favorite bookstores (Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass.) each family in the book group received a free copy of the novel a month in advance of our discussion.


I was touched and thrilled that the bookstore would use part of their grant this way. As the group assembled in a comfortable room decorated with images of Curious George, the librarian, Evan Sipe, passed out slices of pizza. Since younger siblings also attended, the group ranged in age from 9 to 13. Adults and children settled in to eat and talk.

Instead of the typical questions that come up on an author visit (Where do you get your ideas? How much money do you make?), these kids surprised me with the depth and breadth of their comments. After a few smart questions about the way I handled different points of view in the story, they launched into an energetic discussion about war and peace. They talked about whether we should reinstitute the draft and, if so, what would happen. “We wouldn’t have the war in Iraq,” one boy said. They argued about whether community service should be mandatory, and about our responsibilities overseas. “We shouldn’t have to fight someone else’s war for them,” another child said.

Though their parents had also read the book, their children initiated and maintained the discussion. Parents and children alike spoke of our current conflicts and the fact that tens of thousands of children across the country have faced loss or disruption due to our ongoing wars. The young readers were more than ready to take on the issues raised in the novel. Their insights were quite profound.

At the other end of the age spectrum, I spoke recently at a daylong conference on “What’s New in Children’s Books” put on by Wondermore (formerly The Foundation for Children’s Books) Participants included a number of librarians as well as other children’s book authors and illustrators. I gave them some background on my novel, including my own experiences with loss and political activity during the Vietnam War era and in the years that followed.

Afterward, many members of the audience—especially those who had lived through this era—came up to share private stories from that time period. I heard about husbands who managed to avoid the draft, about boyfriends who had left the country. One man admitted that he had lucked out in the lottery while his friend did not—with fatal consequences.

Just last week, a reading at a bookstore in Vermont prompted similar comments from adult friends who had vivid memories of that time. “This is really a novel for adults,” one man announced.

Yes—and no. I wish I had said then what I’m thinking now: there are no rules about who should read what. Is it time to throw away the labels on book jackets (YA, MG, etc.) that limit readership? Since we can’t predict how or why a story may capture a reader, no matter the age, we can only write the stories we need to tell.

(For further reading: See Anne Ursu’s insightful post, and Elizabeth Minkel’s “Read Whatever the Hell You Want” among others.)

Pete Seeger sang “Bring ‘Em Home,” a patriotic, soldier-honoring Vietnam War protest

Seeger died in January, 2014, at age 94. He loved adding a banjo sketch to his autograph!

Seeger died in January, 2014, at age 94. He loved adding a banjo sketch to his autograph!

If you were near my office when this clip is playing, you would hear me singing along with the great departed Pete Seeger.  I love the way he honors the troops even as he asks us to “Bring ‘Em Home.”

It’s actually a very patriotic song.  But it brings tears, as the concert was recorded in 1970, just a year after I lost my cousin, who lived next door to me when I was growing up, and a dear friend.

The woman behind The Wall: Maya Lin never forgot Vietnam’s names

VietnamWallStampA 21-year-old college student’s anonymous entry won a national competition. Her design, later known simply as “The Wall,” would create a lasting memorial to the Americans who died in the Vietnam War. 

Nevertheless, Maya Lin faced years of criticism, beginning with a “B” grade in her college class. Not until a 1994 documentary did the world fully know her side of the story.


Muhammad Ali fought the Vietnam war draft

muhammad (2)No one protested the Vietnam War era military draft louder than boxer Muhammad Ali.

Why wouldn’t he serve? How did Americans, and the government, react?  

Those favorite Fenway Park Pesky Pole seats might put the squeeze on Brandon in 2015

greenmonsterseats (2)If Brandon wanted his same right field seats in Fenway Park (section 93) for a 2015 game as a Christmas present, the holiday gift would cost anywhere from $35 to $75 – depending on date and visiting team. See what the Red Sox will charge for the best seats in the coming season:

Boston’s Iraq War protesters faced national spotlight in 2004

books_not_bombs_by_black_cat_rebel-d59wefl (2)

Illustration: Bullmoose

Brandon’s 2004 Iraq War protests had a real-life Boston parallel. When the city hosted the Democratic National Convention that year, protesters saw their opportunity.

John Lennon, Yoko Ono combined Vietnam War protest with Christmas

gr_happychristmas_johnlennonNot everyone in Canada opposing the Vietnam War remained quiet.

Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono staged a “bed-in” protest in 1969 Montreal. They gave press conferences from their hotel room bed speaking out against war. During the event, John and Yoko recorded the still-heard Happy Xmas (War Is Over), inviting random hotel room visitors to sing on the recording.

Here are the peace posters and billboards they unveiled around the world:

Why I’m giving thanks for creamed onions

LK_blog_pots&pansThanksgiving makes me grateful for family and family traditions, especially those related to food. For the first time in many years, I don’t have to cook this Thanksgiving. But if we were eating at home, or contributing to a meal with friends, I would make the creamed onions. This tradition is handed down from my Great-Grandmother McKelvey.

When I was a little girl, any mention of her name sent a frisson of fear through me. Though she died long before I was born, she apparently ruled her household, outside of Youngstown, Ohio, with an iron hand. Many of her rules, which my mother obeyed when she visited, related to cleanliness and the spread of germs: Don’t toss the dishtowel over your shoulder; it will pick up germs. Always dry yourself completely before stepping out of the tub onto the bathmat. Wipe the kitchen counters constantly.   

When I was older, I learned that Great-Grandmother had lost a son and a daughter to typhoid fever. My grandmother, who was the oldest child, also contracted typhoid; her hair fell out and she was frail for months. Great-Grandmother’s fear of germs was probably connected to the devastating experience of losing two children—and almost a third—in that pandemic. 

On Sundays when she was a little girl, my mother and her parents drove to the McKelvey’s house for a required family dinner.  The rules were in full force on those visits, but my mother remembered that the food was sumptuous and tasty. My great-grandparents lived on a farm, so I assume that much of what they ate came from their garden and the animals they raised. 

Creamed onions were one of my great-grandmother’s signature dishes, and as an adult, my mother believed that they were essential to the Thanksgiving meal. Mom prepared the onions ahead of time, since peeling them was labor intensive. Once cooked, she kept them warm in Great-Grandmother’s white enamel double boiler, which she had inherited—much to the distress of my mother’s aunts, who apparently coveted the pot. They were likely to exclaim, when they saw the double boiler: “Oh. So YOU got that!” (The aunts also disagreed as to whether the onions should be sliced, or left whole. Ours were sliced.)

The warming pot was similar to the one shown here, but with black handles. The bottom of the pot reminded me of a plump woman. The lid was pockmarked and the bottom was stained, but it did the job. When I was old enough to handle a paring knife, I helped Mom peel the onions. We stood side by side at the sink, tearing up as we slipped off the skins. After I was married, facing the challenge of my first turkey dinner, I called my mother to ask for the recipe and instructions. That phone call became an annual ritual. Every Thanksgiving, a few days before the meal, Mom and I discussed the creamed onions. Our conversations often segued into a family story, so I never wrote the recipe down. It was more fun to have those holiday chats.

Over the years, I’ve made onions in our Massachusetts kitchen; on a hot plate in a southern cousin’s country house (where the roux curdled); in a Vermont cabin; and in my parents’ assisted living facility. Once, my husband and I hosted a potluck Thanksgiving in our rented condo and our dear friend Lorni offered to bring the creamed onions.  I accepted; we had a big crowd and a small kitchen, so it helped to parcel out the jobs. A thick fog blanketed the roads on Thanksgiving Day. Lorni and other friends drove down from Vermont in a crowded mini-van. When a stop sign suddenly appeared in the gloom, Lorni slammed on the brakes—and the pot of creamed onions slid from the seat to the floor.  Her son sobbed because he’d never heard his mom “say those bad words;” creamed onions oozed across the van’s carpeted floor mats (which smelled oniony for months); and our friends arrived looking frazzled. Clearly, I should have made the onions.

My mother has been gone for three years. Sadly, I can no longer call her to ask for advice on food—or anything else. You can find many creamed onion versions online, but I hope that this one, based on my pre-turkey phone calls with Mom, is close to Great-Grandmother’s recipe:

  1. Take a bag of small white pearl onions. Wash them (per Great-Grandmother’s attention to cleanliness).  Parboil the onions with the skins on for about ten minutes or until just tender.
  2. Drain the onions but save the cooking water. When the onions are cool, slip the skins off while running them under cold water.  Leave whole, or slice thin, depending on your own family tradition.
  3. Make your favorite basic roux, blending butter (or a butter substitute) and flour. Whisk in a combination of onion water and milk.  (For those who avoid dairy, use chicken or vegetable broth with the onion water.) 
  4. Season with thyme, a bit of fresh crumbled sage, ground pepper, and a dash of white wine.
  5. Stir until the sauce thickens. Add the sliced or whole onions and heat through, or cook longer if the onions aren’t quite done. 
  6. Keep warm in a double boiler, preferably Great-Grandmother’s, until dinner is ready. Ladle into Great-Grandmother’s Blue Willow Spode serving dish.   (And yes: I got that.) Enjoy.

 Happy Thanksgiving!