The Hare: A Cautionary Tale?

THE HARE (2021)

By Melanie Finn

Two Dollar Radio Books, 320 pages





Can two damaged people find happiness in each other? What if one has no confidence and the other a highly distorted sense of reality?


Hares are shy, a trait that defines Rosie to a T. She was raised by a censorious grandmother in Lowell, Massachusetts. As Rosie put it, she grew up with the “cold, steady drizzle or Gran’s resentment.” She thinks she’s plain-looking and talentless. Rosie manages to obtain a scholarship to New York’s Parson School of Design, though she is convinced she has no real artistic talent–and she might be right. She has enormous difficulty in focusing or coming up with ideas.


The Hare shifts from Lowell to New York, and eventually to Southport, Connecticut, then Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Rosie’s main accomplishment in New York is to reconsider her physical appearance. This comes courtesy of Bennett Kinney, who claims to adore Rosie for her innocence and beauty. He is an unlikely suitor in that he’s nearly twice her age, is erudite, has fancy associates, and claims to deal in art and estate objects. Maybe. Lots of things about Bennett sound better coming out of his mouth than getting down to brass tacks. The Hare has been described as both a cautionary fairy tale and a tribute to female power. The first is certainly true; the second uncertain and problematic.


After being wined, dined, and courted, Rosie finds herself at a Southport housesit with Bennett and really begins to wonder if she’s out of her league. How many people have a Van Eyck hanging on the wall of their summer “cottage?” Or a boat house apartment that’s nicer than any place she has ever lived? People know Bennett there, though that’s not necessarily a good thing, as Bennett’s wealthy friends Hobie and Mitzi hint. Nor is Rosie sure exactly what Bennett and his associate Wheezie are up to. Because she’s a person of low self-esteem, Rosie struggles to determine if Bennett is shady or if she’s simply too inexperienced to comprehend what he tells her. To top it off, she’s pregnant and, in 1985, abortion is illegal.


Things get bit clearer when Bennett announces they are leaving Southport for Vermont, where he has been offered a teaching job at an offbeat small college near Barnet. (Sterling? Goddard?) They move into a poorly insulated cabin. Rural Vermont. Winter. Suspicious locals. Uh-oh. Were it not for the help of her cranky, rough-around-the-edges neighbor Billy, Rosie might not have survived. Billy teaches Rosie about things like woodstoves, wool socks, thrift store parkas, and coping with poverty. Bennett is seldom around and claims he has a room at the college as a reward for his stellar scholarship. Another perk is that they will soon send him to Paris. What is it Bob Dylan once wrote? “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”


The Hare moves us from 1983 to 1985, 1991, 1993, and eventually 2019. On one level, The Hare is about how Rosie finds her groove. She notes, “Men mistake the act of submission for the condition of submission.” [Emphasis mine] But don’t unfurl the “Sisterhood is Powerful” banners. Rosie raises her daughter Miranda, copes, slowly integrates into the community, and becomes more self-sufficient, but her life isn’t exactly a vat of maple syrup. Many traumatic things will happen and there’s always the question of what do we do with a problem like Bennett. Not to mention there antigodlin locals who aren’t what they appear to be.


The Hare takes its title from Rosie’s character and from a frozen lagomorph she finds on her porch. The latter is a metaphor for the fragility of liife amidst harsh natural elements, and also for social class. Getting by is not the same as getting on. Many in the Northeast Kingdom are the sort for whom an unexpected car repair is an economic disaster. Author Melanie Finn drives home class themes throughout via various juxtapositions: Lowell versus New York, Southport versus the Kingdom, those with priceless art versus those who run of wood, those who can afford reassignment surgery versus those who buy cast-offs, and so on. Hers is not a flattering portrait of a nation severely split between have-everythings and have-nots. The novel sometimes suffers from being overly ambitious. Its sweep from 1983 to 2019 provides an arc for Rosie’s life, but involves foreshortening that make some actions and impulses less convincing than others. I shall leave it to you to determine whether the book’s denouement is effective and shocking, or implausible and contrived.


Rob Weir






Patrick Oliphant and Pops Peterson at Rockwell Museum

Pat Oliphant: Editorial Cartoons from the Nixon and Clinton Eras

Pops Peterson: Rockwell Revisited

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Through May 31, 2021.


Illustrators and political cartoonists seldom get the attention of painters and sculptors. Luckily, the Norman Rockwell Museum piggybacks off its famed namesake to give due credit to those who toil in the same waters.


I have long admired the work of political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant (b. 1935). Not only is he a master at caricature, he has never been afraid to call it like it is. His work holds fire to the feet of those whose misdeeds warrant it. In today’s bifurcated nation, conservatives and liberals alike are quick to find the mote in the other’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own. That is, they ignore the foibles and malfeasance of those with whom they agree, but express outrage at every breath taken by those whose views they do not share. A current show at the Rockwell Museum juxtaposes Oliphant’s cartoons from the administrations of Richard Nixon (1969-74) with those of Bill Clinton (1993-2001).


Nixon, of course, will be forever remembered for Watergate, arguably the second worst threat to democracy in the modern era. Oliphant’s biting cartoons cast doubt on Nixon early on. His “Trust Me” references Nixon’s promise that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. 




As we now know, that plan involved escalation of the war. Consider a cartoon depicting Nixon at the Lincoln Memorial as the flip side of “Trust Me.” His Vietnam policies–especially aerial bombings of Cambodia–sparked massive antiwar protests. By 1970, just 39% of the public approved of his handling of the war. That same year, Nixon attempted a bizarre ploy by paying a dawn visit to the Lincoln Memorial and trying to discuss the war with young protestors sleeping there. Epic fail! 



Two other Oliphant offerings call attention to two other unsavory aspects of the Nixon years. His veto of campaign spending caps set the stage for the Citizens United decision and the GOP's shameless defense of a best-democracy-money-can-buy society. “Nixon saves” is a corollary. In it, we see that he has “saved” defense contractors, but is willing to allow those needing social services to fend for themselves.



But Pat Oliphant knows that the Hall of Shame has room for both parties. I have never understood liberals’ love of the Clintons, who have plenty of sleaze on their hands. Like Nixon, he distrusted the Clintons from the start. He drew them as Ozark hillbillies bent on looting anything not nailed down. Other cartoons deal with Whitewater and Hillary’s law firm. 



As we know, old Bonkin’ Bill was ultimately impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. A particularly clever and nasty illustration shows us Bill with a dictionary in hand looking up the word perjury. Embedded are two in-jokes. During one hearing he quibbled with inquisitors over the meaning of the word “is.” In this cartoon he is also holding a cigar in his hand. Those who followed the hearings will recall that his cigar also had another receptacle.  



Ken Starr, though, was supposed to find financial wrong-doing. His dogged pursuit of the Lewinsky case ultimately bored the public and was perceived not as perjury, but as prurience. Bill wiggled free.




But Oliphant still saw the Clintons as carpetbaggers, a label he explicitly laid on Hillary in her New York Senate bid. Sounds right to me.




One revelation in the exhibit is that I had not known Oliphant was a sculptor as well. A displayed work of the lanky George H. Bush is like Giacometti-meets-presidential politics. 






Another small exhibit features the work of Stockbridge resident and business owner Pops Peterson. His show “Rockwell Revisited” pays homage to Norman Rockwell, who once lived across the street from where Peterson works. Peterson isn’t well known, but his work is clever and poignant. He has taken several classic Rockwell illustrations and updated them for this moment in time. Here are a few of his offerings, which I offer as a game for you to play. See if you can match them to Rockwell’s originals. If you need some help, go here: 








Classic Film: Atlantic City




Directed by Louis Malle

Paramount, 104 minutes, R (partial nudity, 1970s clothing)






In Atlantic City, petty wiseguy Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) looks over his shoulder at the slate gray sea and reminisces about his heyday: “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”


 My parents met and married in Atlantic City after World War II. They ended up moving to Pennsylvania, near where my mother was raised. Dad, a Worcester, Massachusetts native, frequently disparaged Pennsylvania and yearned for Atlantic City. I first visited as a child in the early 1960s. Steel Pier, the famed diving horse, and Boardwalk sedan chairs were still there, but the place was a dump. The film Atlantic City is set a decade and a half later, around the second time I visited. Remarkably, it was even worse. Visitors were advised not to venture into the city and with good reason: it was squalor, boarded storefronts, crime, and angry urbanites at their scariest. Change, though, was on the horizon. Old hotels were coming down and glitzy casinos were rising. We know how that turned out; small-fry hoods like Lou were pushed aside for big-time crooks and crime syndicates. (FYI: Donald Trump didn’t start fleecing Garden Staters until 1984.)


Burt Lancaster is our guide from romanticized past to squalid present and a future of misplaced hope. The story opens in Philadelphia, where another chiseler, David Matthews (Robert Joy), observes a drug drop in a phone booth (remember those?), steals the package, and heads to Atlantic City to sell it, with his pregnant girlfriend Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) in tow. He’s actually married to Chrissie’s sister, Sally (Susan Sarandon), who left her loser husband, moved to Atlantic City, and dreams of leaving her dead-end oyster bar job and becoming a blackjack dealer at a soon-to-be-opened casino. She’s taking card-dealing lessons from Joseph (Michel Piccoli), a haughty Frenchman and is trying to learn French in the bargain. Sally also has an interesting evening ritual. She stands in front the window by her kitchen sink, squeezes fresh lemons, and proceeds to rub the juice on her neck, shoulders, and breasts. She is unaware that her neighbor, Lou, watches her.


David and the hippie-meets-New Age Chrissie show up and Sally wants them gone, but relents and allows them to crash at her apartment for a few days. She knows nothing about David’s theft of drugs00. Not much good can come from a peeping Tom neighbor, a drug-dealing estranged husband who ripped off drugs from a Philly crime syndicate, an about-to-pop sister, a condemned apartment, and a pipedream. The appearance of some truly dangerous gangsters won’t help matters either. All of this opens the door for an unusual relationship with an unlikely protector, Lou. He too lives in a fantasy world–one that he has repeated so often it passes for truth, though all he’s done for many years is run low-level numbers rackets for a bigger hood, and walk the dog and rub the feet of faded celebrity Grace Pinza (Kate Reid).


Atlantic City takes us to unexpected places. It got five Oscar nominations at the 1982 ceremonies but didn’t win any, as On Golden Pond gobbled up a lot of awards. In retrospect, that film seems so much like a Hallmark weepie that one could say that Lancaster and Sarandon got jobbed. There is a reason why Lancaster was a Hollywood legend. His was a performance in which braggadocio, pathos, bathos, and kindness intermingled. That’s a tough balance to maintain, but he did so effortlessly. Sarandon also threaded a small needle, hers between conflicting traits such as determination, naiveté, wholesomeness, and a bit of double-dealing.


Atlantic City was mostly praised in its time and the performances of the four principals–add Reid to the mix–remain impressive. Some other things don’t stand up as well. Joy went on to do some TV work, much of it in Canada, but he’s pretty stiff in the film and McLaren is downright embarrassing. The late-70s fashions are also pretty hard on the eyes and the pursuing thugs are cardboard cutouts. The film probably also suffered at Oscar time from being a joint Canadian-French venture. (Hollywood always prefers to honor itself.) It also suffered from a romance/comedy/drama blend that doesn’t quite gel.


Another reason to check it out now (or revisit it) is for its implied warning about casino promises. Aside from a few Native-American reservations, casinos are like the blackjack table: the house wins and both punters and bandwagon-jumping politicians get fleeced. (Hello Bangor, Camden, Detroit, Springfield!) Atlantic City and its ocean might or might not have been something back then, but if given a choice of criminals like Lou or the gambling syndicates, I’d rather bet on the former.


Rob Weir


World Music:Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Moving Sound, Coreyah, Madou Toure, Afrika Mamas, Chinese Folk Music



April sometimes holds surprises–like a snow shower when daffodils are in bloom–so it’s an apt time to review the new album Bonfrosta Shetland Islands term for a hard frost–by Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (NFB). If NFB’s music is unfamiliar, the trio is Kevin Henderson from the Shetlands (Scotland), Olav Luksengård Mjelva from Norway, and Anders Hall from Sweden. Mjelva plays a hardanger fiddle. It has nine (or eight) strings, though you have to look closely to see them. Four are played as one would any fiddle tune, but their vibrations cause the underlying strings to vibrate harmonically and with an eerie quality.  Hall plays viola and an octave fiddle, the latter of which is strung to sound lower. Several of the tunes are polskas, which is often translated as “polka.” Though both are often in ¾ time, a polska is a Scandinavian dance that’s generally more formal than what most think of as a polka. These are reminders that the feel of NFB instrumentals is often that of a folk/classical hybrid. The new NFB album is a dozen gems that includes three solo pieces, one from each musician. It opens with “Schottische Kerlou,” a lively dance tune penned by piper Calum Stewart who now lives in Brittany and has a suitable Scottish/Breton feel. Two of my favorite pieces are “Frygg,” a tribute to Frigg, a superb Finnish band; and the gorgeous title track. Available videos are currently scare, so trust me when I say the latter captures the quiet locked-down feel of winter. Plucked strings and bell-like tones make for a magical blend that’s at once forlorn, yet hopeful. You can, however, see the lads on “Adam’s Nightmare” and observe the balance between Henderson’s jauntiness and the moodiness provided by Mjelva and Hall. The hardanger gets a workout on “Bas-Pelles Eriks Brudpolska” and will quickly hear why it’s also a favored wedding march. For pure fun, try “Myrstacken,” which starts slowly but doesn’t stay in said tempo for very long. The word is Swedish for “anthill” and NFB make a mountain of it. Savor this release for musicianship of the highest order.



A Moving Soud is a Taiwanese band, though their newest record Songs Beyond Words sometimes sounds Indian. They are often where modern and meditative meet and mix. Its centerpiece is Mia Hsieh, a willowy singer and dancer who sometimes drifts into the music to offer bird-like vocalizations and at others is front and center directing the action. “Silk Road” and “Ganesh” are decidedly on the meditative side of things. You will hear Hsieh but also instruments such as the two-stringed bowed erhu and the lute-like zhongruan, which sounds like an up-sized pipa. Check out the concert footage of “Fire Dance,” which is supplemented by the performance of an actual fire dancer, and a very supple one at that. Hsieh and the band have a lot of fun on “The Market Song” in which they recreate the sounds, bargaining, and controlled chaos of a Taiwanese agora. “Interplanetary Heart” also intrigues, with hand percussion evincing the thump of the universe. 



Coreyah is from South Korea, though much of its music is redolent of Indonesian gamelan in that it is trance-like and superlunary. This sextet from Seoul sometimes gets tagged as a psychedelic band. I get that in the sense that their sunny dispositions and deliberately paced music conjures swaying dancers lost in a musical groove. But let’s not imagine the Grateful Dead. Rather than a guitar-driven band, Coreyah’s main melody instruments–played within a mix of minimal guitar and various percussion–are bird-like wooden flutes in the hands of Kim Dong Kun and the zither-like geomungo, which is played seated on the floor and plucked with a bamboo stick. The heart, though, is singer Ham Boyoung and she has a glorious voice that can be as delicate as a “Yellow Flower,” one of the songs from their new album Clap and Applause, but also catchy and filled with verve, as we also hear in said song. Listen carefully to her on “Good Dreams” and you will also notice that hers is a voice of many colors and ornaments. Watch Coreyah’s NPR Tiny Desk concert and I suspect that you too will be mesmerized by their infectious charm. 



Mamadou “Modou” Touré is the son of famed Senegalese musician Ousman Touré.

The son also rises, though his album Touki occasionally suffers lapses linked to uncertain focus for his band. Touré has a smooth and powerful voice and his songs explore his Senegalese roots, family, and identity. A few songs, like “Moon,” are in English but the bulk are in Wolof, Soninke, or French.  Touré plays an acoustic guitar and, depending upon your perspective, you might wonder if he sees himself as a folk singer, a folk rocker, an Afropop artist, or a jazz fusionist. The title track has elements of the latter, whereas "Mélokane" is laden with pop hooks, and “Noone” has an electric guitar interlude that feels forced. But there is no doubting the allure of his sunny vocals. 



Let’s hear it for the ladies. Afrika Mamas is six single mothers from South Africa shaped by the dream of group leader Ntombifuthi Lushaba to take their music to the world. That tale is told in “Iphupo.”  They will immediately put you in mind of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and that’s no accident. On Ilanga, the ensemble’s fourth record, Afrika Mamas sing of the challenges of everyday life such as being female singers in a male-dominated society, street vending, and the travails of miners. Songs such as “Isilingo” showcase their robust a cappella Township style and don’t assume the deep bass is a male vocalist! Many songs such as “Tshelamina” spotlight call-and-response singing, but there is diversity within them. Compare the former to “Sithwele Kanzima” in which the chorus sometimes switches roles with the leader. They also offer a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that’s a bit like Durban meets Motown.




Only in the West is “folk” music identified with singer/songwriters. In most places it means music of the folk–ordinary people. The Folk Music of China, Vol. 10 highlights indigenous peoples from Yunnan Province in the southwest of China, a region bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Tibet. Various singers from the Pumi, Lisu, and Nakhi peoples sing about things around which their lives revolve, including: vegetable searching, dragon worship, blooming Kapok flowers, shepherding, hunting, and weddings. These are untrained voices meant to accompany tasks or commemorate events and bear such straightforward titles as “Song of Transplanting Seedlings.” They are sparse–mostly a cappella or with minimal instrumentation–and demand patience. There are 28 tracks, but most are just over a minute in length. They may not be your cup of tea–they grow a lot of it in Yunnan–but they are folk music stripped to its basics.


Rob Weir



The Glass Key: Will It Snap?



Directed by Stuart Heisler

Paramount, 85 minutes, NR (pre-ratings)




In most film noir movies, it’s best not to trust anyone unless you are very sure of their character–very sure. The Glass Key is considered a noir classic and it’s one that plays off the theme of moral ambiguity. “Classic” might be too strong, but it is based upon a Dashiell Hammett story, and Hammett knew a few things about the elusive distinctions between right and wrong.


On the surface it seems straight forward. Reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) is running for governor of a state that could use a good corruption cleansing. He entrusts his campaign to political fixer Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a man who operates in the ethical gray zone, but nonetheless earns Ralph’s trust and is engaged to his daughter Janet (Veronica Lake). Soon, Madvig is so deeply ingratiated into Henry’s good graces that he brags to his associate Ned Beaumont (Alan Ladd) that he practically has the key to the Ralph’s house. Beaumont warns Paul to make sure it’s not a glass key– a term meaning one that it might snap and a metaphor for an act that can’t be undone. 


What can be done and undone is a theme of the film. Henry’s son Taylor (Richard Denny) is the classic family black sheep who everyone but daddy knows is worthless. Another noir standard is that it’s never a good idea to be on the outs with a gangster and Taylor has racked up some significant debt to  local thug Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who is just fine with the state’s crooked politics and worries that Madvig might get Ralph Henry elected. Janet’s not exactly a peach either. She wears Paul’s engagement ring, but he’s challenged in the couth department and Janet prefers Ned, though he’s too loyal to Paul to tread on his turf.


When Taylor becomes his best self–a corpse–the question arises as to who offed him. Varna has an alibi and all signs point to Paul, who vigorously denies it. The allegations though, are enough to steer Ed away and Varna tries to recruit him. Janet is another enticement and we can’t help but wonder whose side she’s on. The Glass Key becomes one of those tales in which any of a number of people might wish Taylor dead–including family members and friends–and not even District Attorney Farr (Donald McBride) trusts that evidence and suspects match. Like Farr, you might not expect the ultimate resolution.


The performances of Ladd and Lake stand out in the film. Ladd never quite cracked the A-List in his day, but managed to get steady work in Hollywood in roles such as he played in The Glass Key: a brooding, but steady guy whose inner qualities rather than conventional good looks made him attractive. He was only 5’5” –not exactly Cary Grant territory– but was often paired with Lake, who was just 4’11.” Lake is probably best remembered for her luxurious peek-a-boo blonde mane, but she also exuded qualities associated with a femme fatale: snark, slinkiness, cleavage, and an ever-present air of danger. In The Glass Key, Ladd and Lake smolder rather than sizzle, because that’s what their respective parts demanded. Donleavy is also quite good. He’s oily, but he keeps us guessing whether he’s just an effective political operative or as crooked as an elbow filled with fish hooks.


The Glass Key is a solid noir film, though not it’s a bit like Ladd in that it’s not quite top-tier. As a film, it can be confusing if you’re not paying close attention. Jonathan Latimer’s script is problematic, though it might not have been his fault. Hammett’s novel was a heralded work, but one that was rougher and had fuzzier lines between right and wrong. The Hollywood Code of the day had strict standards about how crime was presented. Beaumont gets a small makeover for the film, but it’s just enough to soften him. Ditto Janet, who is more duplicitous in the novel. But assuming that Hammett isn’t at the top of your reading list, the film version of The Glass Key will do you. I doubt it will destroy your faith in politics; more likely, it will confirm what you’ve long suspected.


Rob Weir   


Experience the Magic of Glasstastic




Brattleboro Museum and Art Center

Through June 15, 2021


For the past ten years, the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center has housed one of the most innovative education-meets-art projects imaginable. Kids from across the country in grades K-6 draw imaginary creatures and write about them. In turn, a committee chooses a few dozen or so, and glass artists render them in 3-D. This year's exhibit spotlights 27 of these wonderfully whimsical and inventive critters. It's a toss of the coin which is more magical, the work of the professional artists or the imaginations of the kids. The works range from the silly to the scary and the touching to what might be called burgeoning political awareness.


Here's a small sample:


Rachel Cousino’s “Biwwy” is a doughnut crossed with candy corn. Biwwy has a small brain but a big heart, the latter of which is used to help people like the homeless. 




“Snoogle” by Sarah Balint-Wohl enjoys the company of others and likes to live in a field of flowers for he can hide from predators.




One of my favorites stories is the “Flower Cat “by Aliana Miller. Allow me to quote her: “One day there was a little girl whose mother was sick. She went outside to get some flowers for her mom. But then out popped a flower cat! The girl picked flowers for her mom, and the cat asked why. ‘Because,’ the girl said ‘I want my mom to feel better.’ The cat said, ‘you can give the flowers to her but I have healing powers. So I can use my healing powers to heal your mom so she's not sick anymore.’ The flower cat and the girl became best friends forever.”



Gertrude, a monster designed by Timmy, has spikes and gripping feet so he can climb. Raspberries are Gertrude’s favorite food is raspberries and he can run 63 mph. We don't know why Gertrude is a he, but who cares?




One of my favorites is “The Flying Lunchbox” from Marleigh Vose. Anyone who has ever left lunch on the counter needs one of these. All you have to do is say, “On lunch!” and it uses its wing, invisible feet, and six eyes to find you. Plus, it will make food for you.




One of the more elaborate creatures, “Swirly,” was designed by Ava. It lives in Swirly Town on Planet Swirly and likes to sit in the grass and watch the sunset, eat fruit and be happy. 




August Davis drew what looks to be a narwal named “August Junior.” that for some reason likes to play basketball.




John Max Malcovsky drew a creature called “Tigon,” which could have come from a medieval bestiary. It has wings like a dragon but the rest of him looks like a tiger. He hunts, but he also likes to explore caves. 





Olivia Sawyer drew a creature called “Drake.” According to Olivia, “Drake is creative, happy, funny, and loves to sleep all day. When not sleeping he likes to bake cookies, draw, and give hugs.” Olivia tells us, he “always likes to eat a lot of cookie dough, doesn't everybody?” And because he likes to look good, he wears a top hat.




Kudos to the glass artist whose craft is everywhere on display. Not all artists deign to enter the realms and minds of children, so glass hats off to: Mariel Bass, Josh Bernbaum, Marta Bernbaum, Jocelyn Brown, Robert Burch, Dominique Caissie, David Colton, Dan Coyle, Robert Dane, Allie Dercoli, Robert Du Grenier, Sandy Dukeshire, Alissa Faber, Nic Flavin, Westley Fleming, Zak Grace, Chris Hubbard, Claire Kelly, Jordana Korsen, Lynn Latimer, Sally Prasch, Bryan Randa, Chris Sherwin, Randi Solin Jen Violette, and Andrew Weill.


As an added bonus, another BMAC gallery has a selection of photos from past exhibits.




Mike Bond's Semi-fictional Look at the Fifties and Sixties



America, Volume I  (2021)

By Mike Bond

Big City Press, 383 pages.





Is innocence a good thing? I suppose it depends on how you measure what we choose to ignore. America, Volume I is as advertised, a fictional waltz through the decades after World War II through the late 1960s. Mike Bond’s twist is to focus his tale on two boys and two girls as they come of age in a nation quite different from that of their childhood. (It is the first of a planned multi-volume saga.)


A simplistic–and wildly inaccurate­–take is that the United States went from victory culture and world leadership in the ‘50s to a nation divided in the ‘60s by radicals, hippies, and protesters. In said view, the 1950s were a values-centered golden age, and the 1960s one in which permissiveness, disrespect, and chaos ruined the country. An alternative view is it the ‘60s tackled real problems previously swept under the rug: racism, sexism, poverty, cultural sterility, and eco-degradation – not to mention an inane Cold War.


The first part of Bond’s novel, though set in New Jersey, riffs off of Huckleberry Finn. y. Troy, whose father died in the war against Japan, hates the Catholic orphanage where he is housed. The priests are sadistic, the place is like a prison, and he's a frequent runaway. In one of his leave-taking sojourns, he meets Mick, a Tom Sawyer-like risk-taker. He and Troy hit it off, but Troy is caught and returned to the orphanage. In another attempt, he and Mick meet again and decide to run away to Florida. They have many harrowing adventures and it would have been worse had they not met two African-American tramps, Joe and Molly, who shared their food and showed them how to hop trains. Eventually though, they abandon their quixotic quest and Mick's father brings them back to New Jersey. He and his wife decide that Troy can live with them, and he becomes the brother Mick never had, though he has a sister named Tara. As part of the extended O'Brien clan, Troy is as focused and goal-driven as Mick is carefree and careless. The O'Briens live on a farm and are both down-to-earth and earthy. Dad is self-reliant and distrusts authority, Mom is kind, and various relatives pop in and out to flesh out a 1950s panorama. Despite their suspicions, the O'Briens believe in the American Dream and are deeply patriotic.


Filmmaker Michael Apted (from Aristotle) once said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will you the man.” He didn't say girl and woman, but he should have. Troy, Mick, Tara, and Mick’s girl crush Daisy fall into Apted’s category. Readers may find the first part of Bond’s novel the least realistic. The O'Briens and Troy talk as if they are indeed from Twain’s Missouri; their speech is certainly not like any New Jersey dialect I’ve ever heard. I don't agree with Bond’s linguistic strategy, but he is setting us up for loss of innocence. At one point, Dad remarks, “religion causes wars." Call it folk wisdom or a political screed, but religion takes it on the chin in the book. And so does the cherished myth that hard work pays off. I don't wish to disclose too much, but I will say if there's a reason you don't hear much about small farmers in New Jersey anymore.


To return to the idea that personalities are formed early, Mick, who hates school, nonetheless does well without studying much. He remains addicted to danger, just like the kid who jumped from railroad trestles, got close to venomous copperheads, and drove fast cars. Troy, who romanticizes his dead father, wishes to enlist in the military. Tara, a rebel at early age, will go to UCal Berkeley, and if you know history, you will recognize it is a place where conformity was on the outs. Daisy will also wend her way through trials and transformations.


Bond salts the novel with the events of the day. The assassination of President Kennedy was, for many, a turning point. Mick observes, “Like a walking cadaver, America carried on in a stunned, hollow and bereaved world …. Sorrow remained but fury grew." We read of other traumas: civil rights unrest, the murder of icons, Mississippi Freedom Summer, drugs, etc. If the first part of the book is about innocence, the last part is the death thereof.


The novel is equal parts fascinating and uneven. It's a bit like Mick in that it's philosophical yet opinionated. Bond has given himself an ambitious task and there is a decided tonal change from the folksy quasi-Twain opening chapters and the historical whirlwind of the last part of the novel. It's an open question as to whether this shift is too mechanistic. I suspect, though, the crux lies in Bond’s choice quote from Nietzsche: “To the extent an ideal has been falsely worshiped, reality has been robbed of his value, its meaning and its truth."


Rob Weir