A collaboration between Maureen Dunn and the Associated Press reporter, Melissa B. Robinson, it follows the experiences of the former as she tries to make sense of what happened to her husband when his unarmed plane was shot down in 1968, just 11 days after his first tour of duty in Vietnam was extended. After the incident, Lt. Joe Dunn was classified as MIA, and with that, the government was done with the case. But for Maureen Dunn, who met Joe on a blind date in their native Boston in 1963, the fight was just beginning.
The circumstances of Lt. Dunn’s disappearance are so frustrating and elusive that we as readers feel his wife’s pain as she struggles to get even the most basic information from the military: Where was he shot down? Did he inadvertently invade Chinese airspace? Who shot him down? Was there a search and rescue attempt? The contradictory answers and silence she receives to almost every question leads Dunn, who like her husband came from a working-class Irish-American family, on a quest that lasts decades: a quest that begins with bumper stickers posted throughout her town, joins her with other MIA families across the country, and solidifies into one of the first POW/MIA activist groups in the country, and takes her to rallies, embassies, and eventually to the White House, where she earns an audience with President Nixon and his advisors.
“The Search for Canasta 404” illuminates a period in history when American pride and sense of duty often gave way to rage. To capture such an emotional and complicated time -expanding the story from one woman’s loss to the world stage – is a feat in itself. Indeed, the book captures well the interplay of the personal and the global. The scope of American policy in Southeast Asia and its effect on the government’s handling of Lt. Dunn’s disappearance complicate our anger, forcing us to consider the larger picture. At the same time, the small devastating moments of Dunn’s everyday life, trying to raise a young son on her own while refusing to give up hope that the man she loves is still alive, is a constant reminder that war itself, as large as it seems, is waged by individuals with stories just like the Dunns’.
In writing such an all-encompassing book, the task of maintaining a consistent tone is understandably difficult. At times, mainly in the sections that deal with Dunn’s personal life, the writing tends to over-direct our emotions, as if small, heartbreaking moments need adjectives for us to understand their significance. On a more general level, it sometimes struggles to make transitions-especially in the creative nonfiction sections, where Robinson and Dunn attempt to imagine Lt. Dunn’s perspective. Excerpts from his letters convey his experiences nicely, but the authors try to supplement these with narrative interludes, as if Joe Dunn is a character in a novel: “Joe scanned the murky bluish green water off South Vietnam’s craggy coast from the window of his A-I Douglas Skyraider, but didn’t see anything suspicious, just a few fishing sampans out for the day’s catch.” Though moments like these try to develop Lt. Dunn as the protagonist of the story, we as readers are only too aware that they are fictional and unimportant. We rush through these sections to get to the real story. And, ultimately, what these attempts fail to realize is that Joe Dunn may be the protagonist in Maureen Dunn’s mind, but in this story, for us readers, she is the protagonist and it is her story, not Joe’s, that is so fascinating.
“The Search for Canasta 404: Love, Loss and the POW*MIA Movement” is published by Northeastern University Press; 252 pp.: $25.95.