Lincoln writer Louella Bryant remembers when Howard Dean, running for president in 2004, smiled with seeming invincibility on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
That's when her husband told her the rest of the story.
Harry Reynolds is more a thinker than a talker. But seeing Dean pictured so glossily, he surprised his wife by recalling how he went to prep school in the 1960s with the former Vermont governor's brother Charlie. Harry and Charlie attended the elite St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island, then moved on to different colleges before meeting up in the most improbable of places: a hippie commune halfway around the world in Australia.
The two young men, seeking to escape the Vietnam War and the expectations of their country-club families, fled to a ramshackle outpost called Rosebud Farm and its garden of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. After four months, Charlie asked Harry if he wanted to see past the day's headlines and meet the people of battle-scarred Southeast Asia. Harry was homesick and returned to the States. Charlie boarded a boat to parts unknown.
A year later, Harry was working at his family's New England orchard when he learned that Laotian soldiers armed at a riverbank checkpoint had captured and killed his 24-year-old schoolmate.
Bryant listened as her husband recalled the horror of three decades earlier, then watched as he retreated to the attic and returned with a red-leather journal and a shoebox filled with letters. Perusing the pages, she saw a story of adventure, history and heartbreak.
"Good Lord," Bryant recalls telling her husband, "this needs to be a book."
Four years later, she has finished writing it. While in Darkness There Is Light: Idealism and Tragedy on an Australian Commune is the coming-of-age story of a brotherhood of boarding-school friends and what they learned when they graduated into the conflict and counterculture of the Vietnam era. The 234-page paperback also sheds new light on Charlie Dean's fate and how it shaped his older brother, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Dean has said little publicly about his brother's disappearance and death. That's what makes his cooperation with Bryant and his contribution to the book so significant.
Bryant has published numerous short stories, poems and essays, as well as two novels for young adults. After hearing her husband reminisce, she began reading, researching and planning her own trip to Rosebud Farm. Most of Charlie's family and friends trusted her enough to share their diaries, letters and, in Howard Dean's case, CIA records. A man who retraced Charlie's route from capture to prison camp shared his account with Bryant in a 14-page letter.
Bryant knows some scholars and journalists will frown on her footnote-free "hypothesis" of Charlie's last days in Laos. But even those few pages, she says, are based on his past conversations and correspondence.
"It's like putting together a quilt with really small pieces," she says. "I would ask Howard and Harry, 'Does this sound like Charlie?'"
Bryant's $16 paperback was just released by the Black Lawrence Press, and she'll promote it around the East Coast - including at this weekend's Burlington Book Festival. Some may pigeonhole the book as just another title about Vietnam, Nixon and the counterculture. The author sees it more as one man's story of wrestling with the questions of war, politics and society that continue to divide the nation.
"I had to do this," she says. "Somebody had to tell this story."
Louella Bryant reads on Saturday, September 13 at 10 a.m. in the Great Room at the Lake & College Performing Arts Center, Burlington. Other upcoming readings are September 24, 7 p.m., at Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, and September 28, 3 p.m., at Phoenix Books in Essex.
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