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I wanted to read A Place We Knew Well because it was a family drama set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was just ten years old in 1962 and had little understanding of world politics. I only knew that the adults in my life were fixated on the small black and white television screen and I knew they were frightened and worried. So I was worried. It was years later that I associated those days of fear with the Crisis.
Author Susan Carol McCarthy had her own memories of those thirteen days which inspired her to write this book. In her own words,
Where do books come from? I can’t speak for anyone else but, I know for sure, each of my three books grew out of very specific, very personal life events.
Inspiration for my first book, Lay That Trumpet In My Hands, arrived in a manila envelope containing clippings from The Orlando Sentinel, about a series of shocking race crimes that occurred in my central Florida hometown the year I was born, and an 8-page letter from my father saying, “Everyone in town knew the local KKK was involved, but no one was willing to do anything about it. I want you to hear, from the horse’s mouth, what I did and why.”
My second book, True Fires, grew out of the first, when I discovered, with my father’s help, the one time that the powerful racist sheriff in the county north of ours, a minor character in Trumpet, was forced, by strong women in his community, to do the right thing. It may have been the only time during his 28-year reign that the love of power capitulated to the power of love. I was genuinely inspired and privileged to tell that story.
My third and newest book, A Place We Knew Well, was, in all seriousness, a nightmare—a recurring nightmare which I began to have soon after the events of September 11, 2001. In that dream, I was desperately afraid and powerless because the end of the world was at hand; but oddly, I was back in Florida with my parents and only ten/eleven years old. It took me awhile to realize that my subconscious had somehow melded my childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the attack on the Twin Towers. Nearly four decades apart, my response to 9/11—shock and outrage, anxiety and fear—sent me back to a place that I, and anyone who was in Florida in late October 1962, knew all too well.
So many books have been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis from the political, military, and historians’ perspective. My inspiration was to capture what it was like to be an ordinary family trapped in the swath of that extraordinary, uniquely terrifying time. This book began as a way of setting down my own vivid childhood memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it would never have been finished without the generosity of so many others, whose shared recollections helped me grasp the larger, communal story. I’m truly grateful to them for their insights; and to you, kind reader, for your interest in this seminal time.
The novel starts in 2009 with a woman returning to what was her father's gas station, now closed after his death. She notes the "lingering smells of petroleum, cigarettes, and strong coffee that, as long as I can remember, meant "Dad's work." She sees the cash register and the red-and-green Texaco star, finds her father's work jacket which smells of Old Spice and oil. The woman is jolted to October 1962, her senior year in high school.
The description of the station jolted me back to the gas station my father ran until 1963 when he sold the business. I wrote about The Station in a post you can read here.
For my family the Cuban Missile Crisis passed and was never spoke of. McCarthy was older at the time and her novel is a cathartic work to organize and control the experience of the events of October 19, 1962 and the thirteen days that followed.
Wes Avery runs his gas station in Orlando, Florida, not far from McCoy AFB. Wes was a navy pilot in WWII; he understands that unusual things are going on. Such as the arrival of top-secret U-2s at the field and an alert of DEFCON 2, meaning imminent war with the Strategic Air Command.
His wife is active in promoting fall out shelters. She is frustrated and depressed, popping pills to fight a nervous breakdown. Wes had flown over Japan after the atomic bomb attack and saw the destruction. He knows there is no surviving an atomic war.
Meantime, Wes's daughter is on the Homecoming Court at school. Her date is a Cuban refugee his once wealthy family remain in Cuba. He hates Castro but encounters prejudice because he is Cuban and poor.
On top of everything else Wes is visited by someone who is supposed to be 'dead' and who threatens to destroy his family just as surely as Fidel Castro threatens to destroy America.
I liked Wes Avery. He is a good man who sees things straight but is forced to prevaricate to protect his family. He wants to protect his daughter from knowledge that her world may be about to end, allowing her to enjoy the simple pleasures of being on the Homecoming Court. And he must protect his wife from knowing that a person from her past is returned, a person who could destroy his family.
The novel delivers a lot of history and background information on the political and social climate of the time. Wes's flashbacks do become intrusive and slow the momentum of the story. McCarthy has a lot she wants us to know, but not all of it fits seamlessly into the story. It is my main criticism of the novel.
For readers younger than we Boomers, the novel offers insight into a time when mainland America first felt the threat of war on their home turf, long before the attacks of 9-11. They will wonder at America's nativity. As Peter Pan told Wendy, "You see, children know such lot now." A sad wisdom indeed.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
A Place We Knew Well
Susan Carol McCarthy
Random House-Bantom Dell
Publication Date September 29, 2015
$27.95 hard cover