I actually remember the summer of '69. I remember the excitement of watching on a black and white television screen as Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" into history, fulfilling President Kennedy's promise that we would go to the moon in that decade. I remember it and so it's hard for me to think of a novel about that time as "historical fiction" and yet I suppose that is what we must call Elin Hilderbrand's Summer of '69. It was, in fact, fifty years ago this summer.
In addition to being historical fiction, this is what I would call a great summer read, a great beach book even. After all, much of its action takes place on the beaches of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, places about which Hilderbrand seems to write instinctively. One feels that she knows them well.
Kate Levin, the wife of Boston lawyer David, takes her family to her mother's Nantucket beach house every summer for three months, but in '69 some members of that family are missing. Her busy husband is only able to join the family on weekends. Her beloved only son, Tiger, has been drafted and recently sent to Vietnam. Her oldest daughter, Blair, is heavily pregnant and unable to travel. Her second daughter, Kirby, has taken a job on Martha's Vineyard at a hotel frequented by people like Ted Kennedy. This leaves Jessie, her youngest, as the only child to absorb all of Kate's anxieties and worry. It promises to be a very unpleasant summer for Jessie.
Jessie is a marvelous character. The story really belongs to her and we see it primarily through her eyes. She turns thirteen during this summer and her body, her perspectives, and priorities are changing. Much too fast it seems at times.
Hilderbrand shifts her perspective from one character to another, but always it comes back to Jessie. The Levin family relationships prove fractious. Kate's mother, David's mother-in-law is tyrannical and dictatorial. And over all of the relationships spreads Kate's dread of receiving notification from the Army and knowing that she will never see her son alive again and her desperate attempts to find someone with influence who can get her boy home.
And so we spend this momentous summer with this somewhat dysfunctional but ultimately loving family and we watch as they navigate what is for them a very stressful season but one in which Jessie grows and learns about life. The most important things that she learns are facts about her family. She learns that her adored father and her mother are also human beings in addition to being her parents. Even her autocratic grandmother is a human being with her own needs and desires. One has reason to hope that Jessie will herself be a very wise human being.
This is a thoroughly undemanding read about an ordinary family with whom I could easily identify and about a time in our country's history that I can look back on almost fondly today, although at the time it was fraught with anxiety and hard to see the way forward. Hilderbrand is a very talented writer and the plotting of her novel was skillful and it kept the action moving, making it hard for the reader to put the book down. Her adeptness as a writer was also borne out in the development of her characters. I have nothing negative to say about the book. It was, in my estimation, the perfect summer read!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars