Just Like February, by Deborah Batterman

Just Like February

As the story opens, five-year-old Rachel Cohen is worried that her hippie parents are not going to actually go through with their long-delayed wedding. Her mother keeps calling it off. For Rachel, its more than the much-fussed-over dress she’ll wear as the flower girl; it has to do with making her family seem less precarious.

Her conservative grandparents appear vividly in their humor, patience and bottomless love. Details such as Grandma’s raspberry rugelach and Grandpa’s jokes and stories bring them to life, as do their distinct voices.

But it is her Uncle Jake whom Rachel loves immoderately. A restless traveler, source of treasured gifts and postcards, Jake is a free spirit who seems to offer Rachel a different kind of stability. He really does, even though this may seem at odds with his move to San Francisco, which has given Grandma to an obsession with earthquake predictions. It is only as Rachel grows older—the story begins in 1969 and ends in 1986—that she begins to recognise his demons and the real dangers that threaten him.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in a well-written book is turning back to the first page and first chapter after I’ve finished. Batterman’s beginning holds the seeds of the story to come. I was delighted to find images and motifs that circled back at the end. These are techniques that make for a satisfying ending—so rare in novels these days.

Writers often discuss how much to bring the outside world into your novel. They can add resonance to a story or, if irrelevant, distract the reader. Setting this story in the turbulent mid-twentieth century: the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Batterman could hardly ignore the effect of outside events on this family, yet she goes further by incorporating them into the storyline.

She does a good job of integrating the counter-culture of the time, with its dizzying sense that an old order is actually coming to an end. She also captures the early days of the AIDS epidemic, with their panicked and irrational fears, using them to drive the story.

For me, the story vividly brought back those decades. And the sense of being there again cemented by the many little details and references that were familiar to me. The text is interspersed with Rachel’s diary entries and postcards written by Jake and Rachel, adding another dimension of authenticity and voice.

I want to mention the cover, too. If readers aren’t familiar with an author, then the cover design is the first thing they see and the first way to interest them in the book. This cover is brilliant. Delicate and lovely, yet troubled, it sets you up for a story that is all of these things.

The next thing readers notice is the title. Titles are a particular weakness of mine, so I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I finally understood how appropriate this title is. The mystery of it draws you in. It lingers in the back of your mind and, even when it’s later explained, it still takes on new layers of meaning.

Delicate and lovely, troubling and satisfying: this is a story to savor.

Where were you when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon? Now that a new film about that event is coming out, what do you think its significance is?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Change Chronicles, by Paula Friedman

change

Friedman has written a thought-provoking novel set in and near San Francisco during the tumultuous years 1965-9. Subtitled A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement, it is narrated by young Nora Seikh. At 22, she is still uncertain about who she is and what she will do with her life.

Her head is filled with the voices of others—an abusive former lover, another would-be lover, a pair of strict and conservative parents—all telling her who she is and what she should do. As she struggles to navigate the negative voices and figure out these things for herself, she becomes involved with the nascent Antiwar Movement.

Nora takes a job reporting antiwar news for the Berkeley Barb which sends her to local actions. She also gets involved with a couple of activists and through them with the Port Chicago demonstrations and nonviolent vigil, trying to stop the shipment of weapons—including napalm—to Vietnam.

This is also when the Second Wave Women’s Movement was taking shape. Having a female narrator enables us to experience the intersection of the two movements, the way the men in the Antiwar Movement downplayed the women’s contributions and discounted women’s issues as unimportant.

Although I was on the East Coast during those years, I certainly could identify with Nora’s journey and attest to its accuracy. For instance, when Nora distributed leaflets to returning sailors, she found—as I always did—that they wanted the same thing: End the war. Bring them home. Everyone I met who was involved in the Antiwar Movement was intensely on the side of the men sent to fight and die in an unjust war. We were against the politicians, not the men.

Another thing that people who came of age later might not understand is that we had no role models. Especially for women: we were in uncharted territory. We wanted more than the homemaker destinies of our parents. The pill had opened up possibilities of love outside of marriage. But in those pre-internet days, before Women’s History courses, we had no easy access to examples of how to navigate this new world. As my friend Jill said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along. We all were.”

We learned to talk with women living in poverty or near-poverty, women of color, women who had always worked. We read novels and poems by women. We read biographies of women artists and writers.

In this novel, Nora has turned to philosophy but, dissatisfied by the men she’s been studying, she tries to puzzle out her own.

Having left the uncertainties of the early twenties behind long ago, I was less interested in the first part of the book which was heavy with Nora’s descriptions of her feelings and attempts to work out a philosophy that would give structure to the world and her own identity. My interest perked up in the second half when the balance shifts more to the actions against the war.

The characters are well-drawn and there’s plenty of action, especially in the second part when things get worse and worse for Nora, keeping the tension high. Nora’s emerging understanding of herself and her world continues to be tested right up to the end.

Have you read a story that accurately captured a time you lived through?