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place1962. It was Frosted Flakes, the Texaco star, Andy and Opie Taylor, Gunsmoke and Lawrence Welk. But it was also the Cold War, duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Susan Carol McCarthy’s new novel A Place We Knew Well (Bantam, digital galley), set in Central Florida in the fall of  1962, is a curious mix of documentary and daytime soap, American Experience meets Search for Tomorrow.

McCarthy is very good at specifying the details of the era, from B-52 bombers lumbering overhead to U-2 spy planes, looking like “a cluster of fantastic dragonflies,” parked at McCoy Air Force Base. Orlando gas station owner and World War II vet Wes Avery and his teenage daughter Charlotte are viewing the planes through binoculars when an MP asks them to return to their car and move away from the restricted area.

The Averys — Wes, Charlotte and mom Sarah — are the major players in McCarthy’s story as the nation is gripped by the thought of long-range Russian missiles parked off Florida’s front porch. Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, and missiles could reach Central Florida in eight to 10 minutes. Wes, who saw the aftermath of Hiroshima from the air, has no patience with local “Bombworshippers,” and is dismayed when a local insurance company salesman gives him dogtags for Charlotte as preparation for “a worst-case scenario.” Charlotte, meanwhile, is a typical teen worried that the crisis might disrupt homecoming at Edgewater High and her first date with Emilio, a teenage “Pedro Pan,”  sent to the U.S. by his aristocratic parents after the Cuban revolution.

Meanwhile, Sarah, depressed after a recent hysterectomy, is coming apart at the seams, popping uppers and downers as she works with the local women’s civil defense league, overseeing the stocking of public bomb shelters. She totally disapproves of Charlotte’s date with Emilio, even though the handsome teen works for her husband. As tensions mount about possible nuclear war, an estranged family member turns up and long-held secrets are exposed. The subsequent fallout changes the Averys’ lives forever.

A Place We Knew Well begins slowly but eventually builds some suspense. Still, the ending can’t help but be anticlimactic, and a final letter to McCarthy from a character strikes a false note. Overall, the book doesn’t have the dramatic impact of McCarthy’s first novel, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands, another family story inspired by real events in Central Florida. But it is set a decade earlier, in 1951, when the KKK terrorized the black community. McCarthy deserves credit for her research and her reimagining of an historical turning point, but her fictional characters just aren’t as interesting as the times or the place in which they lived.

 

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