by Cynthia Voigt
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Crisfield, Maryland, from 1967 to 1969; published in 1985.
An independent loner confronts family conflict, racial tension, and the Vietnam War.
Cynthia Voigt was born in 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts. A high-school teacher of English, Voigt began her writing career in 1981 and produced a string of ten bestselling, acclaimed young-adult novels within the next five years. Voigt insists upon the sophistication of younger reading audiences, refusing to sugar-coat difficult issues like loss, family conflict, death, and pain. The Runner, one of several books about the Tillerman family, takes on the issue of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a rebellious boy who makes the complicated choice to enlist in the army.
The Vietnam War
United States military forces were officially involved in Vietnam from 1964 to 1972. The history of America’s involvement with this country, however, reaches back to the close of World War II. Before the war, France counted Vietnam among its colonies. The situation changed, though, in 1945 at the war’s end. Vietnam was proclaimed a republic, and France signed an accord with its president, Ho Chi Minh, while the Japanese occupied the greater Indochina area. After the war, America wanted France to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance for mutual defense against the Soviet Union and other communist nations. To get the French to join, America agreed to support them in their quest to reinstate themselves in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. However, an ardent group of Vietnamese nationalists under Ho Chi Minh, who were supported by the Soviet Union, fought hard against the return of the French. In 1954 the French forces were dealt a sizeable blow at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu; thereafter, in an effort to contain the conflict, a cease-fire was arranged by an international committee in Switzerland. The regions of North and South Vietnam were created temporarily until an election could be held. America, however, decided that the danger of the communists’ winning control of the whole country was too great a risk to take. The fear was that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, nearby countries would fall prey one by one to the same fate. The United States therefore lavished economic support on South Vietnam’s leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, and signed a pact with members of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) guaranteeing protection from aggressors. By 1954 France received enough financing from the United States to support 80 percent of its war effort. This same year the United States replaced the French presence in Vietnam.
In 1961 U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent advisors to South Vietnam to determine what further assistance was needed, and to teach Diem how to wage a successful war against the North Vietnamese. In late 1964 U.S. military involvement in Vietnam escalated when Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, initiated a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. By 1968, 40,000 American soldiers were dead and 250,000 wounded, with no end to the war in sight. (Vietnamese losses were several times this number.) By 1969 there were more than 550,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam.
Efforts toward negotiated peace began in 1969, but U.S. military operations continued until 1972. In January 1973 a peace treaty was finally signed by South Vietnam, the United States, North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front (the communist provisional revolutionary government in South Vietnam). The treaty provided for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Fighting between South Vietnam and the communists continued, however, until the South Vietnamese government fell to the communists in May 1975.
Some 80 percent of the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam came from poor and working-class families. Bullet Tillerman’s choice in The Runner conforms to a general cultural pattern: “America’s most unpopular war was fought primarily by the nineteen-year-old children of waitresses, factory workers, truck drivers, secretaries, firefighters, carpenters, custodians, police officers, salespeople, clerks, mechanics, miners, and farmworkers” (Appy, pp. 6-7). As the child of a poor farmer in a rural community, Bullet’s chances of serving in the Vietnam War were high; a disproportionate number of children from farming families served in the American forces in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. At the time of the Vietnam War, Selective Service, the process by which certain men were drafted into the armed forces, was heavily influenced by class: people enrolled in college—in most cases, the middle and upper classes—were exempt from military service on the grounds that they were training for professions vital to American interests. Also in the mid-1960s the selection criteria for serving in the armed forces changed dramatically. A program called “Project 100,000” sought to admit into the military many of the men who would previously have been rejected on physical or mental grounds. The result was that the Vietnam contingent was populated liberally with men who were mentally or physically unfit for service, or who came from America’s poorest and most broken homes. The death rate of Project 100,000 men was twice that of the average American forces, probably because the 100,000 men were trained largely as combat soldiers (Appy, p. 33).
Protesting the draft
In part because of the high rate of casualties and brutality, and because of the prominence of televised reports of the battlefield, the Vietnam War sparked unparalleled protest at home. At the time of the war, U.S. law dictated that the Selective Service could draft all young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. Some men avoided military service by remaining enrolled in universities, by claiming conscientious objection to the war, by getting married, or by claiming 4-F status (a disability exemption). Some men deliberately mutilated themselves, going so far as to chop off one or more fingers in order to avoid the draft. Most recruits, however, were assigned 1-A status, requiring them to report for active duty.
WHY DID THEY GO?
Historians speculate that many American men enlisted for military service during the Vietnam War because for America’s lower classes jobs were scarce and prospects dim. A 1968 study of seventy-six white, working-class Vietnam veterans revealed the following reasons for enlisting:
|Nothing else to do||14|
|To avoid trouble, police||11|
|To get away from home/family||9|
|No stated reason||9|
|To do duty like friends||8|
|To prove manliness, self||6|
|Sick of school, hassles||4|
|For the security of a job||2|
|(Appy, p. 48)|
Around 1967 the antiwar forces were organized to such an extent that young men began en masse to refuse to register for the draft, or to reject military induction if called. Black heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali, for one, refused to serve in what he described as a white man’s war. Other young men flocked to Canada during this time to avoid being drafted into military service. One of the high school students in The Runner sees this option as the most attractive for him: “I’ll be in Canada before they get a chance at me,” Jackson proclaims (Voigt, The Runner, p. 31).
Chanting “We Won’t Go!” draft opponents who had already registered with the Selective Service burned their draft cards to protest what they believed was an unjust war that America had no business fighting. In October 1967 “there were draft-card ‘turn-ins’ all over the country; in San Francisco alone, three hundred draft cards were returned to the government” (Zinn, p. 187). By 1970 peace rallies were drawing hundreds of thousands who opposed the war in Vietnam.
Women and antiwar protest
When Bullet, the main character in Voigt’s The Runner, comes to tell his mother, Abigail, that he has signed up to go to Vietnam, she merely nods and tells him that she has been expecting him to do so. Abigail is so browbeaten by her domineering husband that she perhaps is not capable of doing what many other mothers did during the Vietnam War: protesting the draft. Middle-aged, middle-class mothers achieved a level of political notoriety during the war. The nationwide Women Strike for Peace (WSP) movement was well in stride by the time the events in The Runner take place. These women, and the men who worked along with them, realized that their middle-class white sons had many advantages over rural and black young men, who often did not know what their options were in relation to the draft or where to seek help. The WSP set up counseling centers in poor communities to show men how to pose a legal challenge to draft laws. They also came to the aid of those who resisted the draft, visiting them in prison, writing them letters, and encouraging them in their stance. In 1967 WSP marched on the White House under the slogan “Not My Son, Not Your Son, Not Their Sons.” They kept up strident protest for the duration of the war and, when American forces finally pulled out of Vietnam, WSP continued to agitate for amnesty for draft-dodgers, deserters, and American men in exile in Canada.
Counterculture and the protest generation
The term “counterculture” refers broadly to a social movement of the 1960s that was generally composed of young, white, middle-class Americans who rejected “traditional” American values. Members of the movement set themselves against the standards of their parents, choosing to indulge
THREE VOLATILE YEARS IN AMERICA
- U.S. planes drop bombs on Hanoi, capital of North Vietnam; Vietnam War heats up
- Almost half a million American soldiers stationed in Vietnam
- Martin Luther King Jr. leads anti-Vietnam War protest at the United Nations building in New York City
- Summer of racial violence erupts across the United States
- Muhammed Ali, who refuses to fight in Vietnam, is stripped of his heavyweight boxing title
- Thousands turn in or burn their draft cards at nationwide “ceremonies”
- January: in the “Tet offensive,” North Vietnamese troops attack throughout South Vietnam and take the U.S. Embassy in Saigon
- Civil rights bill signed into law in the United States
- Supreme Court orders all U.S. public schools to make immediate desegregation plans
- April 4: Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- June 6: Robert Kennedy dies from an assassin’s bullet
- Richard Nixon promises to end the Vietnam War and is elected president
- Feminists storm the stage at the Miss America pageant
- First American troops withdraw from Vietnam
- Commission on Civil Rights castigates the Nixon administration for poorly planned desegregation policy
- November: “March against Death” in Washington, D.C., protests the Vietnam War for thirty-eight hours
in drugs and sex to an unprecedented degree; theirs was the “hippie” culture that embraced rock-and-roll, the birth-control pill, and environmental activism. While some historians insist that this was a fundamentally apolitical movement that should not be associated with the antiwar movement and related political protests that swept the nation, others note that the counterculture youth were making a political statement by rejecting the values of their parents, and that some of them were politically active. Whether or not they were part of the rebellious counterculture, many young people publicly protested the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the ongoing gender and racial discrimination, including the segregation of blacks and whites in schools (an issue in The Runner).
To certain factions of the counterculture, the government seemed an oppressive and sometimes sinister authority. In The Runner, Tommy, who has just been kicked out of his position as editor of the school paper by the school principal, suggests that his treatment is indicative of a larger conspiracy to silence and control America’s youth. He speaks of closely guarded records and files that contain secret information on every student; he proposes violent solutions; and, as Bullet sees it, Tommy switches crusades in the blink of an eye, turning from the Vietnam War to America’s own battle for racial and civil rights. For all his talk of conspiracy and rebellion, Tommy fails to see what Bullet himself can see—that getting even is not the same as rectifying what has gone wrong.
Samuel “Bullet” Tillerman is a high school senior who lives near the eastern shoreline on a farm in Crisfield, Maryland, with his tyrannical father and his mother, Abigail. The father has already driven off Bullet’s elder brother and sister, Johnny and Liza, and has completely alienated Bullet, but Abigail endures her husband’s bullying with a silent acquiescence. Although her husband will not allow her to have a driver’s license, she escapes temporarily from time to time in a leaky boat that her son Johnny left behind. Bullet’s main complaint against his father is that the “old man” tries to “box” him in (The Runner, p. 3). The boy copes by running; when the book opens, he is on his nightly ten-mile cross-country course.
On his way home from his run, Bullet thinks about how to respond to his father’s latest despotic demand: that he cut his long hair because it makes him look like a girl. The boy fantasizes about the bizarre hairstyles he might develop but then settles at last on the idea of shaving his head. When he returns from his run, he and his mother share a charged moment—she knows he is about to do something, but is simply too resigned to the constant tension in her family to even ask what.
The next day at school, Bullet joins some friends for lunch. They are discussing two hot topics of the day—women’s liberation and the Vietnam War. The liberal aphorisms they trade back and forth irritate Bullet, who knows that for all their political posturing, they are simply afraid of the war. He knows what fear is and how to deal with it. He has been fighting all of his life—with his brother, his father, and with the kids who want to humiliate him further because he failed a grade.
Bullet is the school’s cross-country star; people are even talking about his trying out for the Olympic team one day. At track practice that afternoon, Bullet meets Tamer Shipp, a black student trying out for the team as a cross-country runner. Bullet acts cold toward him, which Tamer reads as racism: “I read you, Whitey,” he says; what he doesn’t realize is that Bullet dislikes almost everyone, regardless of race (The Runner, p. 42). Just the same, Bullet is full of platitudes about what “colored” people are and are not like, lumping them all into a group, sharing (as it turns out) many of the racist assumptions of his classmates.
When Bullet returns home at the end of the day with no hair whatsoever, his father refuses to lay eyes upon him, and Bullet is no longer allowed to join his parents for dinner. This moment of rejection is blunted, as usual, by the company of Patrice, a French crab-fisherman for whom Bullet works. Patrice treats the boy like a son. The Frenchman has named his boat Fraternité, a word meaning “Brotherhood,” which formed part of the slogan of the eighteenth-century French revolutionaries: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood). Though a rebel himself, Bullet shares little else with the French revolutionaries; his form of protest is singular, not community-based.
One day at school Bullet sits with some other boys who have rejected Tamer Shipp from the football team on the sole grounds that he is black. The Vietnam War is raging and the boys talk about wanting to avoid getting drafted. Later five masked white boys beat Shipp badly because he entered the student lounge, which, by tacit agreement, is for whites only. The entire school grows electric with tension as white students and black students react to the heightened racial hostility. One lunch period when a white student trips Shipp in the cafeteria, Bullet intervenes to stop an armed fight. The white boy has a switchblade, so things might otherwise have gotten very ugly.
Just the same, Bullet is not a racially tolerant person. He flatly refuses to help Shipp learn how to be a better cross-country runner: Shipp is “colored” and Bullet doesn’t “mix” (The Runner, p. 119). The coach therefore drops Bullet from the team, but Bullet hardly cares. He runs not because he is on a team, but because his body is built for running. Now, because he no longer has to practice, he has more time to spend with Patrice, who has begun an arduous task—restoring an abandoned boat that has washed ashore.
Frank Verricker, the sailor with whom Bullet’s sister, Liza, ran off years before, appears at Bullet’s high school one afternoon. He is driving a sportscar and is with a woman who is not Bullet’s sister. The three of them drive to a nearby bar. According to Verricker, he and Liza never got married—at her insistence—although they are about to have their second child. He himself comes and goes as he pleases, and she doesn’t seem to mind. Bullet, who greatly misses his sister, hates hearing this information.
One day, while hunting in the woods, Bullet accidentally shoots Liza’s dog. The accident shocks Bullet into facing his grief (about Liza) and responsibility (for the death of her dog). He begins to empathize with others, realizing how alike he and his father are, how his mother is trapped in a loveless marriage, and how the standoffs between Bullet and his father increase her pain.
Visiting Patrice the next day, Bullet learns that when the Frenchman was a boy he was a runner—a courier—for the French Resistance. He was captured by the Germans, who tortured him by cutting off several of his fingers. Under torture, he revealed the whereabouts of his comrades, and the Germans planned to ambush them. Patrice thought he could reach his friends in time to warn them of the ambush, but he did not arrive in time, and many men died. The Resistance fighters understood but sent him away. Patrice points out that his child’s body and its pain had forced him to make a compromise that hurt others; Bullet, he feels, is like him in this respect, except that it is his rebellious spirit that betrays him into hurting others. Then, when Bullet tells him why he was kicked off the track team, Patrice shares the shocking news that he himself is one-eighth black. Confused and ashamed, Bullet reports for track practice the next day, after offering to help Tamer Shipp.
Bullet’s friend Tommy, who is the editor of the school paper, writes an editorial about the incident in which Tamer Shipp was beaten by white students. The faculty considers the editorial inflammatory and Tommy is relieved of his duties. Bullet is absolutely disgusted by the heavy-handed tactics of the school principal, who sees to it that Tommy is fired.
At the state track championship Bullet meets his first real competition, a runner from Baltimore. Running the race of his life on the toughest course he has ever traversed, Bullet wins. He looks into the crowd and spots his mother just getting up to leave. Bullet marvels at her coming all this way by bus and boat just to watch his race, appreciating her support for him. On the third day of the track meet, Bullet faces a dilemma. The track coach wants him to participate in the relay race with Tamer and two other black runners so that the team can be guaranteed of state ranking, but that would mean running on a track, something he won’t do. After some persuading from Tamer, Bullet decides to acquiesce if Tamer promises to stay out of Vietnam. Tamer consents to the condition.
Bullet himself does not want to be boxed into fighting the war at someone else’s bidding, and so he decides to take matters into his own hands. On March 21, 1968, when he turns eighteen, Bullet buys Patrice’s refurbished boat for his mother, who until now has had to sail to town in the leaky old boat. He then proceeds to enlist in the army. Nine months later, the young man’s mother receives a phone call. Her son Samuel Tillerman has been killed in action.
High school protest
The high school students in The Runner are intimately involved in protest against the war, sexism, and racism. In fact, during the late 1960s America’s high schools were the site of legal controversy regarding the rights of students to free speech. The Supreme Court was debating the rights of high school students to protest the war and racial inequality on school property and during school time. The case of Tinker vs. Des Moines pitted students who wore black arm bands to school in protest of the war against high school officials who warned them that public school was not an appropriate forum to express such political beliefs. The Supreme Court weighed the students’ right to free speech against the potential for disruption of normal school activities and decided in favor of the students, ruling that “School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students” (Small and Hoover, p. 229). Another case, Zucker vs. Panitz in New York State, recalls the episode in The Runner in which the antiwar editor of the school’s newspaper is ousted from his job by a principal who disagrees with his writing an editorial about racial intolerance. In Zucker, a high school principal refused to run an ad in the student newspaper that protested the war. Again the Court ruled in favor of the students:
This lawsuit arises at a time when many in the educational community oppose the tactics of the young in securing a political voice. It would be both incongruous and dangerous for this court to hold that students who wish to express their views on matters intimately related to them... may be precluded from doing so by that same adult community.
(Small and Hoover, p. 230)
Lest it be thought, however, that it was easy for teachers during this time of protest, it should be mentioned that those who voiced strong opinions one way or another, on the war or other contentious issues, faced being fired. The courts were concerned that students not be unduly influenced by their teachers on matters that did not strictly have to do with the curriculum. In The Runner, a student teacher is extremely careful not to come right out and make judgmental statements about controversial issues—he encourages the students to think things through for themselves.
The Runner is the fourth book in the Tillerman family saga. The other stories deal with the family of Dicey, who appears in The Runner as Liza’s infant daughter. Voigt explains that she knew right from the beginning of the series that she would write about the uncle who was lost in Vietnam. Like other books about the Tillermans, The Runner deals with high school students, a population Voigt herself has taught. The novel is also set along Maryland’s eastern shore, near where the author once lived. Finally, Voigt, who was in her mid- to late twenties in the years the novel takes place, observed firsthand the issues it raises.
There were differences between veterans of the Vietnam War and those of the earlier conflict from their parent’s era, World War II. One difference concerns age, with the average for soldiers in World War II being 26 years in contrast to 19.2 years for American soldiers in Vietnam. Another difference lies in how veterans were received after the end of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. Research indicates that they did not feel as warm a welcome home as had veterans of earlier wars, particularly from people their own age. In fact, according to the research, the public in general felt the veterans deserved the country’s respect despite having been part of a war that was unsuccessful. Over the years this public sympathy for the veterans increased, as reflected in the 1982 dedication of a Vietnam veterans war memorial in Washington, D.C.
Before a crowd of 250,000, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was officially dedicated on November 13, 1982, on a site granted by Congress in the vicinity of the Washington Monument. A glossy black wall in the shape of a V, engraved with the names of the 57,939 American men and women declared killed or missing in the Vietnam War, the memorial was designed by a female architect, Maya Yang Lin. It came under hostile criticism by those who felt that it was too bleak or that it seemed critical of the American war effort in Vietnam—they called it a “black ditch” (MacPherson, p. 606). The overall reaction, however, seems to be massively in favor of the wall; families of the dead as well as veterans of the war have flooded the monument from the moment of its unveiling. In 1984, the year in which The Runner was published, a bronze sculpture of three soldiers was added to the memorial, to honor those who fought in and lived through the Vietnam War.
Many reviewers dwelled on whether or not Bullet is a likeable character. Bullet “is so thoroughly bitter, so sure of himself, so competent and mature, that he is almost a bore,” wrote a reviewer in School Library Journal. “Bullet’s ready acceptance of Vietnam when he has rejected so many other things is not clear” said another (Unsworth in Mooney, p. 1643). More substantive criticism centered on Voigt’s treatment of the race issue: “[T]he portrayal of Black characters is simple and one dimensional,” complained a reviewer in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (Goodwin in Senick, p. 237). At the same time, however, The Runner was widely praised for making readers care about a character like Bullet, who is cold and aloof. “[Voigt] breaks all the old conventional rules of the adolescent novel, and forces us to follow her in the investigation of this strange, remote, inaccessible young man in his loneliness and vulnerability,” wrote a reviewer in The Junior Bookshelf (Crouch in Senick, p. 237).
Appy, Christian G. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Glazer, Nathan. Remembering the Answers: Essays on the American Student Revolt. New York: Basic Books, 1970.
MacPherson, Myra. Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
Mooney, Martha T., ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 81. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1986.
Senick, Gerard J., ed. Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
Small, Melvin, and William Hoover, eds. Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
Voigt, Cynthia. The Runner. 1985. Reprint. New York: Scholastic, 1994.
Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century: A People’s History. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.