Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570
Phillips’s first novel, Machine Dreams, focused on one very ordinary West Virginia family, the Hampsons. Phillips chose to write her first novel about the less shocking of her preoccupations in Black Tickets: generations of families and the changing roles of men and women. Written from many perspectives, the novel combines first-person narrative (each family member is given a chance to speak) and third-person narrative and includes two chapters of letters sent home from soldiers at war.
The letters are an effective tool that Phillips uses to reveal her interest in generations. First, one reads Mitch Hampson’s letters written from boot camp, then from various stations in the Pacific during World War II, where he operates heavy machinery to bulldoze airstrips and sometimes to bury corpses. Later, one reads a modernized version of those same letters, this time written by Billy, Mitch’s son. These letters are written from boot camp, then from South Vietnam, where he is a helicopter machine gunner.
The lives of the female generations also reflect, mirrorlike, upon one another. Jean Hampson, who, emotionally and financially, holds her family together until the children are grown, inherited her mother’s strength, which she then passes on to Danner, her daughter.“I always assumed I’d have my own daughter,” Jean tells Danner in the opening chapter. “I picked out your name when I was twelve, and saved it. In a funny way, you were already real. I never felt that way about your brother.” The mother-daughter bond, regardless of the generation gap, is strong indeed.
Although both play a role, generation gaps have less impact than do gender gaps in the Hampson family. Billy inherits his father’s fascination with machines as well as his selective telling of events from the war zone to female family members. “Of course you will not say anything about this to the family,” writes Mitch to a male friend in the early 1940’s. Billy follows in his father’s footsteps as, from Vietnam, he writes pleasantries to his mother. He breaks out of his father’s mold, however, when he depicts the brutal truth in letters to his sister. This departure from machismo also testifies to the strength of the siblings’ relationship, made stronger by their parents’ unhappy marriage.
While Phillips tells the story of the Hampsons’ decline, she also tells the story of changing American lifestyles and values from the Depression to the early 1970’s. Jean contrasts her early life with Danner’s as she explains that “Life wasn’t like it is now. . . . all this I hear about drugs. We had the Depression and then the war; we didn’t have to go looking for something to happen.”
Phillips intended Machine Dreams to carry a political undercurrent, one of the novel’s only facets that met with criticism in several reviews. Yet Phillips believes that all good writing is political, whether intentionally so or not. She imbued her novel with the nostalgia—parking dates, a dance at the community swimming pool, a summer waitressing job carrying heavy trays, heaving petting in the front seat of a car—that makes the Hampsons a family that is representative of middle America. Even if readers’ families do not resemble the Hampsons in the least, the family of that era as represented in television and motion pictures makes it possible for everyone to identify with the shattered dreams of the Hampson family.
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