History Repeats Itself (In Literature Anyway): What Is It About 1969?

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Call it coincidence or maybe synchronicity, but 1969 just keeps coming up in books this year.

Again and again, we’re seeing it: the intertwining of love and danger, the painful insecurity of adolescence, the life-and-death consequences of decisions made under the influence of a charismatic outsider — all set in that same fateful year.

FC9780812998603-1.JPGTake one of this summer’s big hits, for example — The Girls. Emma Cline imagines a Manson-like Californian cult that draws a teen girl, Evie, into its midst. Bookseller Catherine Bock loved it and said, “Cline manages to searingly recreate the longing and all-encompassing desire to feel wanted that seems so singular to teenage girls.” In The New York Times, author Dylan Landis agreed, suggesting that because the Summer of Love was also a “Summer of Longing and Loss” for our country, it’s a perfectly suited setting for this tumultuous period in a girl’s life.

FC9780062436313.JPGThen there’s The Risen by Ron Rash, which explores similar themes of loneliness, desire, and the search for identity. Our book clubs manager, Kathy Schultenover, says, “Ron Rash gets the period detail so right in this suspenseful book,” which takes place not in California but in small-town North Carolina. A young woman disappears after spending the summer of 1969 with a pair of brothers she meets by a creek; years later, the brothers, now grown men, reckon with what happened. (Rash will appear at the Southern Festival of Books in October.)

FC9781616203634.JPGAnd coming to bookshelves next month is Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt — which was selected for the October IndieNext list by booksellers nationwide. Again, it’s 1969; someone is seduced; someone goes missing. This time it’s 16-year-old Lucy who has gone off the grid. She has run away, leaving her her older sister, Charlotte, to wonder what became of her. It’s an entrancing tale, beautifully and subtly told, perhaps made all the more mesmerizing by its backdrop — a time when the nation couldn’t take its eyes off the string of upsetting and disruptive events in the news.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that one of the fall’s most fascinating nonfiction releases examines the time period between August 1969 – August 1970. In Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul, former Newsweek correspondent Clara Bingham presents an oral history gathered from more than 100 interviews with the likes of Carl Bernstein and Oliver Stone, plus lesser-known eyewitnesses to upheaval.

9780812993189.jpg“It is almost impossible to imagine the apocalyptic atmosphere of America in those months,” Bingham writes in the preface. “Grown men and women wept in many of my interviews, their wounds still fresh, their anger and frustration from that time still hot. Daniel Ellsberg, at age eighty-three, broke down when he recalled listening to draft resister Randy Kehler give a speech about going to jail. So did photographer John Filo when he described taking a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying student at Kent State. Many were still anguished by their mistakes. Mark Rudd apologized for the Weather Underground’s violent, destructive tactics; Jane Fonda wished she could rewind the fateful moment when her picture was taken in front of an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi.”

“Bingham’s book is a reminder of just how volatile things got as the sixties bled into the seventies,” says Andy Brennan, our store manager and resident historian, “and it gives us some perspective on the current scene. Following the news these days, one can’t help but wonder if our country is beginning to tear apart at the seams.”

Perhaps it makes perfect sense that we’d be drawn to it all in 2016. America seems to have achieved the “lost its mind” part — maybe finding our soul will come next.

Come tell us what you think when Bingham visits Parnassus Books on Monday, September 26, at 6 p.m. (And if this post has you feeling oddly nostalgic, you might also check out the Spotify playlist inspired by the book.)

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