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Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand published in 2019
Summer of '69 is an enjoyable beach read that would have been unmitigated fun if author Elin Hilderbrand hadn't, as almost all authors today do, jammed a lot of virtue-signalling modern politics into her period novel.
1969 was a jarring year in America that saw the flower-power, hippie movement finally break the traditional culture that had reigned in the country since the end of WWII. With the Vietnam War tearing America apart, conventional beliefs in politics, religion, sex, race relations and gender roles were all being challenge by and, often, losing out to the new ideas of the "youth movement."
Rock and roll, drugs and "free love" were some of the new memes and norms shoving the old values and customs out the window. Whether you embraced the new or stood on the ramparts defending the old, the ground beneath everyone was shifting quickly.
In Summer of '69, an old Boston family comprising matriarch "Exalta" Nichols, her daughter Katie, Katie's second husband and Katie's four children from her two marriages face the challenges of the times. From their Nantucket summer outpost - Exalta's in-town old house on the "best" street - her family is buffeted by all of the summer of 1969's cultural and political crosscurrents.
Katie and second husband David's thirteen year old daughter, Jessie, has a coming-of-age-summer as she has to survive having her heart broken by her first crush, Exalta's required tennis lessons, the embarrassment of shopping for her first bra (with her very pregnant sister), the perceived disapproval of her Jewish heritage at Exalta's very Waspy Nantucket tennis and boating club and being caught at her occasional shoplifting habit.
The bra-buying sister, in-her-early-twenties Blair, is pregnant with twins while her college professor and NASA technical advisor husband appears to be having an affair that throws Blair into the arms of her husband's brother whom she dated before marrying her husband. Hey, it's a beach read.
Late-teen middle sister Kirby is the required "rebel" (you can't be a family during the summer in 1969 without having one kid in full rebel mode) who decamps from Nantucket to the "horrors!," according to Exalta, of Martha Vineyard to gain some independence. There, she engages in an interracial relationship, while she nearly crosses paths with the famous senator Ted Kennedy on the night of Chappaquiddick.
Also required for accurate reflection of the summer of 1969 is Kate's eighteen-year-old son "Tiger," the handsome, high school star athlete and kid everyone likes who has just been drafted and sent to the front lines in Vietnam.
This fractious summer for Exalta's family is one of trying to keep up a surface appearance of normal (that's her culture), despite the body blows they all are absorbing. Author Hilderbrand portrays this family as a microcosm of the country in that turbulent summer.
Kate, unable to find a place for her fear about her son fighting in Vietnam, escapes into the bottle, something the family does its best to ignore (once again, that's their culture). How many in the country in 1969 were burying their fears in some sort of mind-altering substance?
Thirteen-year-old Jessie's emotions almost bubble over when she wants to scream "I'm Jewish" (she's half Jewish) to force the Nantucket club and her grandmother to face her heritage. But she learns later from her Jewish father she has exaggerated the issues as he has been, basically, accepted by all but a few at the club.
Nothing is ever perfect, but sometimes it's good enough, for now anyway. Yet, like thirteen-year-old Jessie, many in the country couldn't accept that in 1969; whereas, those who could felt that they were under assault.
Kirby, loving her status as the family rebel and ready to become a political science major, has the scales fall from her eyes when she learns what a drunk Ted Kennedy did that night in Chappaquiddick.
After that, she's looking to turn her summer job as a front desk clerk at a small inn into a career in hotel management, including an Exalta-funded semester studying abroad in Geneva. Like many in the country, as the sixties ended, idealism gave way to pragmatism, especially as many rebels saw they were being played by politicians like the famous Senator.
Pregnant Blair learns her husband wasn't cheating, but was so embarrassed that he was seeing a psychiatrist that he let his wife think he was having an affair rather than admit the truth. Once the truth is out, they begin to repair their relationship.
It's an early embrace of therapy for the masses, which, along with many former personal failings being redefined as "diseases," would change how America judged itself and its fellow citizens in the ensuing decades.
Finally, son Tiger, after a brief appearance early, effectively haunts the book as a looming death stalking Exalta's clan, an experience familiar to many families in 1969. In a dramatic moment, Tiger rejects his mother-maneuvered non-combat assignment as he's proud of his soldiering ability. He did not want to be "the fortunate son," from one of that era's defining songs.
The war is shown as the confused disaster it was, but adumbrating today's view, in Summer of '69, the soldiers are respected even when their political leaders are denounced. That was not a universal view in angry 1969, when returning soldiers were sometimes called "baby-killers" and spat on.
Summer of '69 often captures the feel of that tumultuous period. Occasionally, it even uses restraint and perspective looking at 1969 through a 2019 lens. But as is the wont of modern authors, Hilderbrand can't help stuffing too-many modern political tics and narratives into her period novel.
"Progressive," "diversity," "privilege," "cultural appropriation" and "patriarchal power structure" were all words and phrases that existed in 1969, but none of them were on the tip of the tongue of the average person or even political rebels in that period.
There are plenty of books, movies and newspapers from then to confirm that those were not the words or framing that liberals or others of that generation generally used.
Yet, it just feels so good to today's authors to virtue signal their modern political pieties that they can't help undermining the verisimilitude of their period novels by having their characters speak as if they were time travelers from today. Or maybe the authors need to do it to get the elitist (read uber-liberal) New York City editors interested in their books.
Perhaps it's because of this political bent that so many of the men in the book are serial cheaters or sexual predators who physically abuse their girlfriends or molest teen and pre-teen girls, while most of the women are caring, giving and kind - and often unappreciated by the Neanderthal men in their lives. The men who are good in the book are so epicene and deferential to women, most women (and normal men), in real life, couldn't stand them.
If you can put all that political preening aside - and you have to if you read modern fiction - Summer of '69 is a darn good beach read that often takes you back to that chaotic and defining summer. The end of the book isn't surprising, as a change in summer houses for Exalta's offspring symbolizes the period's generational schism, while foreshadowing the long-term impact the summer of 1969 would have on the country.
Having lived through the period in which the Summer of 69 was set, I found your review to be absolutely absorbing. While the characters in the book represent starkly different financial/social strata that those from which a poor, white country boy in Pennsylvania was drawn, the problems with which they must grapple were not all that different from the issues I witnessed in that period of my life.
Although my summer of 69 was spent working for Penn DOT, The Pennsylvania Dept of Transportation, repaving roads throughout Clinton County, PA. and based on the heat and a blazing sun, seemed more like a scene out of Cool Hand Luke, rather than the settings in The Summer of 69. My older sister had gotten married, just the year before and had begun a career as a beautician, My younger brother was a rising junior at Lock Haven High School and working at Villelo's Fruit and Vegetable Stand and I had finished my first 2+ years at Penn State. And our Mom was at home, holding it all together for us! My beech/swimming trips were to a section of rounded out river bank along the Susquehanna River where some accommodating individual had cleared out some brush and dropped a couple of dump truck loads of sand, so that we wayward kids would have a place to call a beach and swim.
Looking back, life had it's challenges...and plenty of them, but it was nonetheless pretty darned grand
I am adding the Summer of 69 to my reading list and am going to recommend it as a futuer monthy selection for our local neighborhood book club Thanks for another great review.