By KATHRYN FLAGG
LINCOLN — Lincoln author Louella Bryant’s latest book fell into her lap — literally.
Or rather, it was placed there — in the form of an old box brimming with photographs, letters and a well-worn journal, delivered to Bryant by her husband.
“It was the book,” Bryant said. “It was the whole book in this box.”
“While in Darkness There is Light,” which hits bookstore shelves this week, tells the fascinating story of a group of young, privileged American men who left the United States in the early 1970s. Disillusioned with American politics and blessed with the resources to travel the world, they set off for Australia and an agricultural commune in Far North Queensland.
One of these young men is Charlie Dean, the younger brother of Democratic National Committee Chairman and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Charlie would later disappear in the jungles of Laos and die at the hands of the communist Pathet Lao. (Charlie’s name cropped up in mainstream media during Howard Dean’s 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, when Howard Dean spoke of wearing Charlie’s belt every day.)
Another of these young men, as luck would have it, was Harry Reynolds, who would later become Bryant’s husband.
Bryant stumbled upon the concept for the book in 2004, shortly after Howard Dean claimed his brother’s remains, which had been unearthed in Laos and repatriated at a ceremony in Hawaii. The trip made the news, and inevitably cropped up in conversation one night while Bryant and Reynolds sat on the porch of their quiet home in Lincoln.
Reynolds had attended the same elite preparatory school where Howard and Charlie had been students, just one year behind Charlie and a handful behind Howard. After Richard Nixon thumped George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, Reynolds and Charlie Dean traveled together to the Rosebud Farm commune in Australia, which a few old prep school friends had founded after dropping out of college in the wake of the Kent State shootings.
Reynolds told his wife about the months they spent working on the commune, and recalled that when the rainy season set in, Charlie took off for southeast Asia. He asked Reynolds to come along, but Reynolds returned to the United States instead.
At this point in the conversation, Bryant recalls, her husband “very quietly disappeared” — either to the cellar or the attic — and returned carrying the box that, over the next four years, his wife would fashion into a book.
Bryant was hooked. Here was a story she wanted to tell. As a mother and stepmother to two grown sons, Bryant was fascinated and horrified at the panic the Dean family must have felt after Charlie’s disappearance. She was curious about the blue-blood culture that her husband and Charlie and Howard Dean had grown up in, and eager to know more about her husband as a young man.
More importantly, Bryant said, she realized that underlying questions in the narrative were ones of universal importance. What drives young men into danger? Bryant wondered. How does a young person uncover what it is in life he or she is meant to do?
What emerged from these questions is a riveting story, told in Bryant’s unadorned but forceful prose. A simple, lovely forward from Howard Dean sets the stage for the narrative, which dives immediately into the jungles of Laos before tripping backwards to scenes from a boarding school boyhood, Harvard Yard and the remote, tropical landscape of Far North Queensland.
Though classified as nonfiction, the book does tiptoe along the tightrope between fact and fancy in places — a point where Bryant’s work may draw criticism. She researched Charlie’s time in Laos extensively, sifting through old letters sent home to friends and family, but she chose to imagine the unknowable circumstances of his capture and his eventual execution.
“It’s fictionalized, but it’s also based on the research I’ve done about who Charlie was as a person,” Bryant said.
She relied heavily on a memoir written by Dieter Dengler — the only American to escape a Laotian prison camp — to fill in the gaps, but said she had no choice but to tone down the experiences Dengler relates in his “harrowing” memoir.
“I’ve tried to keep the experience in the prison camp sketchy, because I didn’t want to imagine that (Charlie had) been dragged through hell there,” Bryant said. “I wanted to imagine what I think was probably true — that he relied a lot on his very strong sense of spirit.”
And, she said, she had to consider the feelings of the very people she was writing about — not least of whom were the remaining Dean brothers, who hadn’t seen Charlie during the year preceding his death.
“They never had a chance to say goodbye to Charlie,” Bryant said. “There was this sort of hole in their hearts. The book, for them, brings Charlie back to life. It explains what happens to him the last year before he disappeared.”
Though written in part for the Dean family, Bryant said, the author is excited to send the book out into the world — in large part because she hopes the story about Rosebud Farm and Charlie’s death will have some resonance with readers today. She set out to “interpret a life,” she said, and hopes her readers “find something of themselves in it.”
In this sense, Bryant succeeds admirably. “While in Darkness” not only relates the urgency of early adulthood, but also captures the idealism, turbulence and uncertainty of the 1970s. For readers who lived through the era, it’s an echo of a time invigorating and heartbreaking. More importantly, the book manages a quiet sense of modern relevance.
Now, with the book finally finished and in print, Bryant is gearing up for a slew of September appearances and an October book tour that will take her — and a trunk-full of boxed books — down the eastern seaboard.
It’s a jarring role for a writer accustomed to the peace and quiet of her Lincoln home — where, she said, it’s “just me and the words and the story and this incredible solitude.” And taking off her writing hat to put on her saleswoman cap would be easier, she thinks, if she weren’t selling her “child” — the dear thing she’s worked on for four years now.
It’s unclear whether the questions that drove Bryant’s manuscript — about a young man’s impulse for danger, about the struggle to find one’s purpose — are questions with answers to be found.
Bryant, though her book is published and packaged, appears to still be cradling those questions. She can’t help but still ask about what drove Charlie Dean into peril. He sent a letter home telling of gunshots in the distance, across the Mekong River — and yet, she said, “he went right into it.”
“He must have known on some level that he was walking into some danger,” Bryant said. “I don’t think he was naïve.”
He was motivated, she imagines, by empathy for the men sent to fight in the Vietnam War, and a growing love for Laos that he wrote of in letters home.
“I really, truly believe in my heart that he believed he could make a difference,” Bryant said.
But some motivations no amount of research, and storytelling, can reveal. Though Bryant has moved on to other projects since finishing the manuscript, Charlie Dean still lingers for the author in the inevitable aftermath of inhabiting his story for so many years.
“Every time I read this draft I went into a depression for days, and wept,” Bryant said. “Even talking about it now, four years after starting this project, it just grips my heart. He’s alive, every time I read this story — he’s alive.”
And on that count, Bryant can’t take any liberties with fact.
“When I get to the end, it always has the same ending,” she continued. “And I can’t change that.”
“While in Darkness There is Light” is published by Black Lawrence Press. Bryant is slated for several public appearances next month, starting with a reading at the Lincoln Library on Sept. 5. She’ll also appear at the Burlington Book Festival at 10 a.m. on Sept. 13, and read at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library on Sept. 24.