Although it evidently has been in the works for years and years (The Sixties Project), I knew nothing about this book until a few weeks ago when I saw that one of my goodread friends was reading it. Having enjoyed Wiles’ earlier books, I contacted the publisher for an ARC. They told me it wasn’t ready yet and they’d send me a manuscript; I said I’d wait, but they sent it anyway. And I am mighty glad they did.
How to describe it? On the one hand it is a very straightforward work of historical fiction. On the other hand it is also filled with primary sources, collages of them, and nonfiction vignettes. Kinda scrapbookish. Wiles is calling it a “documentary novel.” Whatever it is, I loved it.
It definitely is the story of Franny and her family and friends over the brief, but frightening time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Based on her own childhood memories, Wiles represents the time and place vividly. And her characters are nuanced and complex. Not a one-dimensional one in the lot. There is the beloved older sister who is off to college and activism. The earnest younger brother who lugs around a book on atoms and wants to be an astronaut. The very-60s mother who plays bridge and is rarely without a cigarette. The embarrassing great-uncle who suffers from post-traumatic-stress (not that it is so identified as this is 1962, of course). The often absent military dad. Most of all there is our protagonist Franny — an endearing and complicated eleven-year-old. As often happens at this age, Franny’s own small world is changing as harshly as is the big world. She’s facing-off her former best friend even as Kennedy and Khrushchev are doing so the world stage. Both relationships are teetering on the brink. You know how the latter ends; as for Franny’s — well, just read the book when it comes out in May.
Now would I have been as wild about it without the documentary stuff? Honestly? I’d definitely still have enjoyed the story, but this additional material, the bricolage, the scrapbook stuff makes it a richer reading experience. There are posters about duck and cover. Material on the making bomb shelters. Advertisements. Song lyrics. Quotes. Photos. (You can get a taste of it here.) And scattered here and there are lively small essays about significant figures, say Truman and Kennedy. I can’t wait to see how it all looks in the final book.
Keep your eyes peeled for this one come May!