Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Strong West Wind--Review

If you were in college during the late sixties and early seventies, you can recall the turbulence of that period. I often say that I was fortunate to have gone to school when I did.  I began college in 1967 when the norm was to be conventional and straight.  By the time I completed my sophomore year the political environment had changed considerably.  You were no longer the norm if you appeared to be apathetic about the war.  Peace marches, challenging authority, gender and racial consciousness became normal.  For sure, many of those spewing the rhetoric of the left and wearing the garb of the counter-culture were involved less because of genuine political leanings and more because such had become cool.  Nevertheless, one would have noticed the change and if you lived through it, and have a good memory, you can recall what it was like and the flavors of subculture within the counterculture.

A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell is a memoir which deals in large part with her relationship with her parents, particularly her father.  She is one year my junior so, while she writes about her early years as well, when she spends time discussing the late sixties and early seventies, I am there myself. She hails from Texas, and I from New York, but the tensions that surfaced between generations, and the behavior of students is something we both experienced though 2,000 miles apart.

Unlike mine, Gail Caldwell's parents were strong supporters of the war, so her anti-war stance created a division that manifested itself in sharp debate and domestic resentments. Caldwell, clearly, adored her father and mother, but the problems during that era were difficult for the family.  She dropped out of school, hitch-hiked here and there, lived there and here, and was up front about a lifestyle that so many of our parents' generation could not fathom.  There is more to the book than the sixties, but as she describes her past, the era and conflict with her dad are central.  The author emerged quite well. She became the literary editor of the Globe and a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Yet, as seems obvious in the book, there is some scar tissue.

I am glad I read the book. There are lines that will stay with me forever and I referred to one in an earlier blog.  Caldwell was and likely still is a prolific reader. Ever since she was a kid she piled books from the library into her arms and came back the next week for more.  One of the problems with the book is that she refers to books and characters in them regularly. The problem with this is, if one is unfamiliar with the character or book, and the point of the paragraph is made with an allusion to the character or the book, the message is lost on the reader.  So, one can legitimately wonder why all the references.  The only people who will understand the points made by the allusions are those who have read the various books. And you are not a philistine if you have not read like she has.  I spend more time with a book in my hand than the average bear and got only about half of the references.  Some times, even when I read the book referred to, I thought there were better ways to make the point.

My sense of her depiction of the sixties and seventies is that it is very accurate in that there was a segment of the counterculture who lived as she did.  She does not imply that the counterculture was monolithic, but if you did not live through it you might get the sense that her behavior was typical.  It certainly was typical of a good number and a meaningful percentage of my contemporaries, but there were other subcultures within the counterculture.  There is a scene where she is asked by her dad not to discuss her antiwar stance when company came to the house.  Company comes in, she joins the discussion, and immediately attacks the war.  You don't get a sense she is proud of such moments now with an ability to glance backwards. A reader from other eras should be careful not to extrapolate and assume this was always the way family tension played itself out.

If you are interested in a book that describes a slice of the sixties, and also describes the evolution of a voracious reader, you will probably enjoy A Strong West Wind.  I do think the value of the book could have been greater if there had been less references to literature, or the allusions were explained without assuming that all people have read the same works.

No comments:

Post a Comment