Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

The Christmas Chook

At Christmas time, we ate chicken. This was a rare treat for us. Not that we were vegetarians, far from it. In Australia in those days, meat was cheap, and we ate lamb chops and beef stews often, and had roast lamb or beef every Sunday. But a few days before Christmas, Dad chopped off the head of a chicken. He caught one from our coop, tied its legs together, then lay it on his tree- trunk chopping block and decapitated it.

The deed done, soon the “chook”, as we called it, was draining into the laundry sink. Then Granny came out and plucked and gutted it. She was practical and matter-of-fact about this procedure, which we kids found disgusting. Our pioneer grandmother told us we were spoiled suburban children and was not patient as she taught us her methods. She muttered under her breath at my squeamishness as she attempted to demonstrate this essential housewifely skill.

I stood by her, gripping the side of the sink as I balanced on a wooden crate and leaned over, getting in the way as her reddening hands worked in the steaming water. As she pulled the white feathers, I grasped one or two as they fluttered into the water. Despite the summer heat, Granny wore thick lisle stockings and black lace-up shoes. My prancing made the water slosh on them, but her apron kept her cotton striped dress almost clean as she prepared the so recently-alive bird. Once it was cleanly plucked, Granny drained the scalding water and closed the laundry door against the flies. Here came the yucky part. She laid the chicken on a bench covered in newspaper, pulled from her pocket a very sharp knife, and with an expert hand sliced the chicken at both ends, pulling out guts and crop, which she threw in a bucket under the counter. The hot closed room became claustrophobic as the smell rose. Sweat beaded my grandmother’s brow. It was hard not to flee at this point, but a sharp reprimand that the flies would get in if I opened the door left me stuck by Granny’s side till the job was done. My job then was to turn on the water in the sink so she could rinse the bird over and over before leaving it to soak in cold water. Then she carried it by the legs into the kitchen to nestle it in the refrigerator. Later it would be stuffed with milk-softened stale bread, apples, onions, and herbs from the garden for our festive dinner.

Did she later chop off the feet, boil and declaw them and then make of the collagen-filled feet a nutritious broth? Probably, for nothing was wasted in Granny’s world. Even the chicken guts had been buried near the fruit trees, decomposing slowly into fertilizer.

Ironic how “organic” food has become the watchword today. It’s what we ate when we were kids because we didn’t know anything else.

My London-born grandmother showed grit and determination when she moved, as a young woman, to teach in Western Australia. When she met my grandfather they moved into the remote Outback, where goods we take for granted were in short supply. She was an amazing cook who brought up four children on food she and my grandfather raised. Her mastery of often-maligned British cookery was the inspiration for Camilla, my caterer protagonist in Lipstick on the Strawberry. Take advantage of the season and what’s at hand, and turn it into something delicious is Camilla’s motto, as it was my grandmother’s – and come to think of it – mine.

I’ll think of my grandmother these holidays, grateful for her teaching in more ways than one.

Wishing you all very happy holidays, full of memories past and made as you sit round the table.

Camilla’s Thanksgiving Nightmare

With America’s favorite holiday approaching, I’m mapping out my days carefully, planning a party the last day of the weekend and pondering what to bring to my son’s house for our family Thanksgiving with a cast of sixteen. As I perused Brussel sprouts, nestling like tiny cabbages in their display stand at the supermarket, I thought back to writing Lipstick on the Strawberry. The Thanksgiving scene in the book shows my catering heroine, Camilla, having a very bad day. She saves it by a flash of ingenuity. Here’s the scene, below: I hope your Thanksgiving is much, much better!

I went into the kitchen and turned on the oven. A light went on satisfactorily, and I pulled the turkey out of its carrier and into a metal pan. I just glanced at the oven after turning it on, and looking at my watch, started bustling. It’s all about the timing, I always told my staff, and now Mrs. Reilly’s pressure to get the meal on the table earlier than I’d planned had set our plans askew.
“Paige, can you prepare a bed of ice for the oysters and slice this lemon and rim the tray
with parsley?”
I put the pies on the counter, pecan, blueberry, apple and pumpkin. I checked the oven temperature. Lukewarm. My heart started to race. Surely it would heat up soon. I hoisted the heavy pan to slide it in the oven. The bird’s breast bone stuck halfway in. I pulled out the bottom rack and moved down the middle rack as far as it would go. The turkey still would not fit.
My blood pressure rose. Mindy had come to visit the client. This order had come in while I was away. Surely this was the most basic information she should have noted. Small oven. Will not fit twenty-five pound turkey!
Mrs. Reilly poked her head around the door. “Are we nearly ready?”
“We’re getting there.” No point in blaming the client for this lapse. It was the caterer’s responsibility to make sure all the bits and pieces were in place.
“We’ll serve the oysters first, of course. Would you mind if we plate the main course from the kitchen?”
“I really wanted to serve it family style. Sort of you know, like I cooked it.”
“Uh huh.” I hated this type of client, the sort who pretended they made the food that someone else had slaved over. “Well, we could bring the turkey in on its platter and everyone can have a good look. But really, Mrs. Reilly, the turkey is difficult to carve at the table and it is easier and more elegant to serve everything on its plate from here. Paige can bring the plates out,” I said. I lifted a pot, exaggerating its heaviness. “Very few Thanksgiving tables, I find, are large enough to carry eighteen place settings and the serving dishes. Let us serve from here, please.”

“I’ll have to bring the china into the kitchen.” Mrs. Reilly’s brown bodice heaved. “The table won’t look so pretty!” With a huff, she left the kitchen.
“God.” Paige looked terrified.
“Don’t worry. Just start shucking the oysters now. Sorry, I know I said I’d do it, but I have to manage this disaster with the turkey.”
“How are we going to give them turkey that’s not cooked through? They’ll get salmonella.”
“Nonsense! It is cooked, but it’s not hot. We can fix that. First we’ll show off the turkey like she wants, then carve it in here. Heat up some broth, then we’ll put in a bay leaf and some thyme, and simmer the cut slices and the legs so they get nice and juicy and warm.” I opened a can of chicken broth as I talked. “We’ll pop the potatoes and squash and stuffing in the microwave, cook the beans on the stove top, and toss the Brussels sprouts in their sauce on top of
the stove. All you have to do is –oh Lord!”
Paige had dropped the oyster tray. Pinky gray crustaceans slid over the wooden floor. Ice formed puddles around them and parsley skidded under the sink.
“I didn’t see that. Quick!” I ran cold water in the sink and pulled open a cabinet to get a colander. “The three second rule. They should be okay. Just rinse and rinse again. And again.” I bent and picked up the few that had landed on their tummies, so to speak. “I think these would be fine, see how the shell’s curve stopped the actual oyster from contacting with the floor.”
For a moment, I stood there, hatred of wastage battling with my reputation.
“No. Throw those ones out. We’ll just use the others. Put extra parsley on the plate so we
can put fewer oysters on each one.”
While Paige mopped the floor, I cut up more parsley, and the refrigerator’s icemaker ground out another pound of cubes. I nestled them around the oysters. “Now. Let’s get the sauce on the side of each plate, put three of these babies on each one, and you take them in, nice and easy. Look calm. Don’t say a word.”
I stopped, a parsley stalk in hand. The compulsively honest Paige would likely apologize publicly to the hostess. I grabbed the platter. “No. I’ll do it. Let’s get the gravy going, then take it off the stove. Line all the veggie dishes up so we can microwave and cook everything in order.
Remember the order – potatoes and squash and stuffing in the microwave, heat the water for the beans, get the simmer broth on for the turkey which I’ll carve just as soon as we’ve shown it to the owner – God, it’s not brown enough!”
Deep breaths. “I wish Hannah were here – she’d put shoe polish on it or something! Just joking. What can we use? Can you look in the pantry – there might be some soy sauce in there?
Maybe some molasses or honey?”
“Soy sauce?”
“Yes, it gives a nice brown sheen. Probably adds a nice taste, too, to the turkey.”
Paige frowned doubtfully as she sidled into the pantry. In a minute or two she emerged, brandishing a bottle of soy sauce.
“While I’m doing the oysters, could you run out to the car and grab my hair dryer – I’ve got an idea.” I picked up the oyster plates and laid them across my arm.

A babble of voices rose from the dining room, Laughter tinkled and glasses clinked as I walked in. Mr. Reilly went from diner to diner pouring wine. His voice was loud, and he seemed a little unsteady on his feet. By the time I finished serving the oysters, he was back at his place, wine bottle in hand, and sliding into his seat, almost lost his balance. He caught me by the waist to steady himself and said, “Ah, oysters, food of the gods. Served by a goddess.”
I felt one beefy hand squeezing my middle while the other reached under the table, under my skirt, to caress my thigh. His hand was warm and aggressive, rising higher. I recoiled. No one appeared to notice, except Mrs. O’Reilly. She glared across the table with furious dark eyes.
“I hope you enjoy the oysters,” I said, and pulled away. The tablecloth in front of Archer Reilly started to pull with me. The Coalport china and the Georg Jensen silverware teetered. I pushed my assailant on the shoulder, trying to get my own balance, and his red face veered dangerously close to the table. The hand fell away from my leg. I flicked his wobbling glass upright and, with as much dignity as I could, walked back to the kitchen.
Trembling, I stood at the sink, pushed my hair back away from my face, and took a long glass of water. The groping made me feel utterly humiliated. Archer Reilly had treated me like a thing. A maid, a sexual object. Not that men hadn’t tried it on with me when I was younger. But this was in public, in front of his wife, and I was not a lowly employee. I was a business owner, the daughter of people who took it for granted that they, too, would be waited on at table, the ex- wife – here I bowed my head into the sink – of a Harvard professor!
I sensed Paige’s alarm. Turning, I saw the hair dryer in my assistant’s hands. I took it from her and placed it next to the turkey.
“How are the veggies coming along? Is the oven behaving itself yet?” My voice quavered. I opened the oven door, and waved a hand inside. Still lukewarm.
The pies sat thawing on the counter, little beads of moisture twinkling on their surface.
They were not ready to serve at all.
“We’ll just have to put them in this pathetic oven and have them heat up, slowly. They might be all right. If we microwave them, they’ll get soggy crusts. At the end of the day, that might not matter. Judging by how these people are going with the wine, they probably wouldn’t notice.”
“Maybe you should go in there again and serve more wine!”
“I think Mr. Reilly’s doing that. They didn’t ask for bar help or a wine server. We’ve got enough to do in this kitchen. These dishes are all going to have to be hand-washed; the best china and all, too valuable for the dishwasher.”
“I can wash the oyster dishes while they eat the main course.”
“Good girl. Now, we’re on a schedule here. Give me the hair dryer.”
“You wouldn’t.”
“I would. I am.” I plugged in the hair dryer and blew hot air over the turkey, sealing the soy sauce, which I had mixed with honey, onto it. We lifted the bird onto its platter, sprinkled parsley around it, and carried it into the dining room. The guests clapped, and Mrs. Reilly, not looking at her husband, raised a toast.

The World’s Easiest Chocolate Cake

The trouble with labor saving devices is that often they create labor. Take, for example my electric stand mixer. My mother used have one called the Mixmaster. It sat on the crowded countertop in our kitchen and was rarely used, unless my grandmother wanted to whip up one of her sponges.

It took up so much space. My own very heavy mixer sits in a cabinet with pull out shelves. I had those installed to make it easier to lift out the mixer but it is so unwieldy that pulling it out is like wrestling with an elephant. So it was with joy that I found this recipe for the most delicious chocolate cake, made with three pieces of equipment – two mixing bowls and a whisk. And of course a baking container. I use a spring form pan sitting on a cookie sheet to catch spills. My go-to cake pan is usually the spring form. It prevents bits of cake from refusing to come out of the pan and makes a pretty presentation.

I’m making this cake for my birthday this week. Credit for the recipe goes to Helen Goh – and to Yotam Ottolenghi for his adaptation, which appeared in The New York Times, 19 September, 2017.

Helen Goh was born in Malaysia but grew up in Melbourne, Australia, my home town.

A psychologist by training, Helen leapt into running a café without any experience and taught herself to bake. This fudgy chocolate cake from her tiny café, Mortar and Pestle, was deemed “the world’s best chocolate cake” by an enthusiastic journalist. Not one to sit on her laurels, Helen then went over to one of Melbourne’s best restaurants, Donovans, where she was pastry chef for several years. Now, she works for Ottolenghi in London. She introduced him to Australian patisserie and has a book called Sweet.

What You’ll Need:

2 sticks plus 1 1/2 tablespoons butter at room temperature and cut into 3/4-inch cubes. If you use butter to grease your pan, you’ll need a little more. (Butter is recommended over spray.)
7 ounces dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids), chopped into 3/4-inch or smaller pieces
1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso coffee granules
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons self-rising flour, or, if you can’t find it in the supermarket, whisk together 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder and use this mixture instead.
⅓ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt

7 ounces (70 percent cocoa solids), broken or chopped into 3/4-inch or smaller pieces
¾ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

THE ESPRESSO CINNAMON MASCARPONE CREAM (not necessary but the final splurge)
1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
¾ cup mascarpone
 Scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod or 1 tsp. vanilla
2 ½ teaspoons finely ground espresso
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ½ tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch spring-form pan with butter and line with parchment paper.

Sift flour, cocoa powder and salt together into a bowl and set aside.

Dissolve the coffee granules in the boiling water.

Put the butter, and chocolate in a large metal bowl and pour in the boiling hot coffee. This will help liquefy everything so you can mix until it is all meltingly combined.

Whisk in sugar by hand, making sure it all dissolves.

Add eggs and vanilla extract and whisk again until smooth.

Pour the dry ingredients gradually into the melted chocolate mixture, and whisk till smooth and liquid.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean or almost so. I was alarmed to see that the top had cracked, but Helen says this is normal. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool. After 20 minutes release the spring of the pan or remove from the layer cake pan. Let cool overnight.

Chop the chocolate very fine and put into a heat-proof bowl. Or, if you have a food processor or blender, use this to mix until fine, then dump it all into the bowl.

In a small pan over medium-high heat, mix the cream and corn syrup. Just before it comes to a boil remove from the heat.

Add the hot cream-corn syrup mixture to the chopped chocolate, and stir with a wooden spoon till it is almost melted. Then add the butter. Stir again till smooth. Or if you are using the chocolate-filled blender or food processor, pour in the hot cream-corn syrup. Process for 10 seconds, then add the butter and whirr again till smooth. That’s Ottolenghi’s suggestion, but I wanted to use as few utensils as possible. I used the wooden spoon-in-bowl method and it is one less item to wash, for one thing. Chocolate, hot cream and warm butter make a lovely, easy to mix combination.

Cover the ganache in the bowl with plastic wrap, allowing the plastic to touch the top of the ganache.

Set aside until it has set. For a thin layer to spread over the cake, pour it over while still liquid. For a thicker ganache with a spreading consistency like a regular frosting, leave it for about 2 hours at room temperature.

The ganache can be stored at room temperature for 3 days or kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

1. If you insist on the final touch, whipped mascarpone and cream flavored with espresso, cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar, you may have to resort to the electric mixer. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of the mixer and beat until soft peaks form.

2. Peel the parchment from the cake and discard. Transfer to a serving platter and spread the ganache, if using, on top of the cake. Slice into wedges, divide the cake among plates and, if using, spoon the mascarpone cream alongside. With or without icing, the cake will keep well for 4 to 5 days in an airtight container.

Wilding – Returning Nature to our Farm

By Isabella Tree
The New York Review of Books, 2018

North America has lost a third of its bird population in the last half century, we learned in a recent news report.

So it is with other parts of the world, too. Isabella Tree has written a fascinating and beautifully written book about her corner of the world, a 3,500 acre estate in Sussex, England, a place which had been farmed for centuries until costs outran income and Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell could no long afford that way of life. All the equipment, pesticides, and herbicides they needed to farm the difficult clay soil had them deeply in debt.

In a radical move, they let the place run wild.

And the birds came back. And the butterflies, the worms, numerous insects, and a riotous resurgence of plants, trees, and scrub.

It all began in 1999 when a tree expert diagnosed the reason their ancient oaks were dying. The soil had been compacted when underground earthworms and mychorrhizae were destroyed by the action of tractors and the elimination of wildlife. Twenty years later, their estate is teeming with life, visible and invisible, and the Burrells have reintroduced to the land red, roe and fallow deer, Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs. The couple now run safari tours of their land, and sell the organically raised meat of their cattle, making more money than they ever did as farmers.

Making money is not entirely the point, Tree emphasizes. But the need to survive financially drove the decision to rewild their estate. The miraculous regeneration of the land through letting nature take its course has astonished them as it has others. While some of their neighbors complain about the untidiness of their once neatly hedged farm, the Burrells revel in its rampant sexuality. That’s a big theme when animals and insects are closely observed. Who knew a purple emperor mating display could be so riveting? Tree’s gorgeous writing keeps the reader glued to the page.

This is an important book, and a hopeful one. The degradation of the planet through monoculture, through the use of artificial fertilizers and heavy equipment has taken place over the last hundred years. But in only twenty years, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell have reversed the course in the land they own. It’s a lesson for everyone.

Sorcery in Alpara

Sorcery in Alpara

By Judith Starkston

Judith Starkston draws us once again into the ancient world of the Bronze Age as she cleverly combines the story of an actual Hittite queen with fantasy elements. But that’s not all. Ms. Starkston’s great gift is to show us a world we can hardly begin to imagine, and yet she peoples it with characters we can recognize. The book starts when the priestess Tesha, newly married to King Hattu, is on her way, for the first time, to his kingdom, which is under threat. This is a very fast-paced and dramatic story, full of original elements. As we read we’re drawn into a vanished civilization’s customs, art, political alliances and superstitious beliefs. Yet the story also encompasses modern concerns like step-parenting, father-son relationships, PTSD, and disability and how it can be triumphantly managed. The nuanced and intelligent portrait of a marriage is the centerpiece of Sorcery in Alpara, giving the book remarkable depth and maturity.

Sorcery in Alpara on Amazon

The Perfectly Good Lie

By Rose Gonsoulin

Available on Amazon, 2019

Rose Gonsoulin captures the world of pro golf in her story of Buck Buchanan, initially a selfish, shallow competitor in the lower rungs of the professional circuit, a player in every sense of the word. It says a lot about the quality of the writing of this delightful book that despite Buck’s hard-heartedness the reader is hooked by the story. Buck must return home when his mother dies, and finds himself saddled with the care of his not-very-bright, video-game playing younger half-brother Art. In desperation, he makes Art his caddie. Gonsoulin has created a charming character in Art, who becomes Buck’s road to redemption. There’s not a second of sappiness, however, in this book. Ms. Gonsoulin’s snappy dialogue, great scene setting, characterization, fast pacing, her insight into the sometimes seedy world of sponsorship and her lyrical descriptions of how it is to play in a championship game kept this reader turning pages.

At the Far End of Nowhere

By Christine Davis Merriman

Green Writers Press, 2018

Sometimes you start a book, can’t put it down, and then, after you’ve let it sit a while, the questions it raises keep you up at night.

Such a book is Christine Davis Merriman’s debut novel. It is a quiet book, a story of an American family in the middle of the twentieth century. It is an unusual  family, in that the father is 72 years old when his daughter Lissa, the first person protagonist, is born. What radiates from this book is the love between father and daughter, and the security provided by parents who work together as a team to bring up their two children. There is little drama in this book, and yet by the time she is twenty-two, when the book ends, Lissa has gone through experiences that don’t happen for many people until they are much older; that is, shouldering the responsibility for care of parents and household.

The question this book raised for me is, what is good parenting? Was Lissa’s elderly father selfish in insisting his daughter give up a chance for college to look after him? Is it a kind of selfishness to delay fatherhood until one is in the eighth decade of life? Was it a help or a hindrance to Lissa that her father kept her more or less sequestered – able to win a local beauty contest yet scarcely allowed to date?

This is a novel about America at the dawning of the digital age, a place and time that could give a bright young man without a college degree an excellent job. It reminds us too, of the social turmoil of the nineteen sixties and seventies; the disaster of the Vietnam War affecting all aspects of life. When Lissa attends USO dances, the only social activity her father permits, the fading, dusty, nineteen-forties décor of the club symbolizes the fracture of a country going to war for reasons that no longer made sense.

Throughout this lyrically written novel I felt a sense of danger always kept at bay, just barely, by the love of the family members for one another. The love was all- encompassing, secure, yet isolating in the extreme. The story becomes heartbreaking when the mother, Jimmie, dies young. Lissa’s sense of disorientation, of not knowing how to become a young woman without a mother’s guidance, is poignantly told. In addition, with Jimmie’s death the family’s main source of income and outside relationships dries up. Again, I asked the question, what makes good parenting? Family live nearby. It is an era when neighbors and friends were supposed to pitch in, and this conservative family certainly took no government help. But the children’s father makes no effort to involve anyone else in helping bring up the children. None of this is stated as a loss. Yet this reader felt it keenly.

At first I thought this book was an autobiography, and indeed, the author’s website indicates that she, like her protagonist Lissa, was born in 1950 to a mother who was 37 and a father who was 72 and often mistaken for her grandfather. As in the novel, the author’s mother died young and she took care of her father till he died. Christine Davis Merriman has turned this rich material into a novel, and her gift for language has turned life into real art.

Without A Mother

The recent New York Times Op Ed by Hope Edelman hit a chord. Entitled “I Couldn’t Say ‘My Mother’ Without Crying” the article’s theme is that “There’s no quick fix for childhood grief.”

Hundreds of people commented and September 1’s letters column was full of responses.

I look forward to reading Edelman’s new book The Aftergrief. It’s not a happy subject. But it is one that has always been at the back of my mind. Why am I interested? I did not have the misfortune of losing my own dear mother when I was a child.

But she did.

My mother lost her own when she was twelve years old. Her mother, Stella, died of lymphoma at the age of thirty-six. On the cusp of adolescence, my mother and her younger sister had to go and live with their grandmother. While loving, “Gran” was old fashioned and weary after raising her own brood of ten.

Years later my mother told me, tears in her eyes, that she and her sister were not allowed to go to their mother’s funeral, and stayed home alone. When he returned from the burial, their father built a big bonfire in the back yard and burned all their mother’s clothes. And the next day at school, they entered a culture of silence. Neither teachers nor friends mentioned their loss.

This repression haunted my mother ever after. She lived her entire life hiding her never-ending grief, and her anxiety grew and grew.

People often ask what inspires an author. “Is your story autobiographical?” they want to know. Usually it is not. But I do know that in writing my new novel, now finished and awaiting a published home, I drew on what I knew about my mother’s grief. In my book, my protagonist, Maelle, lost her mother at the age of ten in mysterious circumstances. Sent to live with her grandparents, she, like my mother, entered a culture of silence. No one would talk about why and how her mother had died.

That’s where my imagination took off and I created a mystery and a totally fictional family.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of my book’s journey to publication.

“Coping” by Brian Leon of Ottawa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Summer of 69

 Elin HilderbrandBy Elin Hilderbrand

Little, Brown & Company, 2019

As the summer winds down and fifty years after 1969, I picked up this book. I had never read this best-selling author before. Realizing that the book was based in Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, I was immediately hooked. In fact, I read the book compulsively from cover to cover. The story features four point of view protagonists, challenging for an author, and I admire the way Hilderbrand kept all their stories in control.

The four are all members of the Foley-Levin family; Kate, forty-eight, the mother of Blair who is married and pregnant, Kirby, at college and rebellious, Tiger, who has been drafted and sent to Vietnam, and thirteen -year -old Jessica, who is the daughter of David Levin, Kate’s second husband. The family could not be more upper-crust and conventional. A military family, even. Kate’s first husband Wilder Foley, had served in Korea, and died on his return, possibly a victim of PTSD.

Conventional and comfortable they may be, but the entire family is against the Vietnam War, and when Tiger is called up, Kate goes to pieces. Hilderbrand paints a fine portrait of this immature, spoiled woman, who actually believes the handyman at her family’s summer residence on Nantucket can pull strings, through a distant, third hand acquaintance with General Abrams, to remove her son from danger. As the story moves through July, and the landing on the moon, which happens the same day Blair has twins, the author reminds us that even though war guts us, intimate events like birth and historic events like the moonshot keep us moving forward, all little swimmers in a great steam of history.

The book is full of time markers, with music, food, and lifestyles accurately rendered. A few caveats, however. Jessica is invited to go to Woodstock; she anticipates sleeping in the back of “someone’s truck” after listening to the bands. There’s no way a thirteen-year-old could imagine this is how Woodstock would play out. I’d bet that she’d barely know where Woodstock is, let alone how a huge rock concert could get out of control. This is a girl who at thirteen has be
walked to tennis lessons by her grandmother. She’s exceptionally sheltered, in my view. However, Jessica is the best drawn character in the book.

“Sheltered” is how I would describe all the book’s characters, except of course, Tiger, who is in active combat. Whether Hilderbrand meant to make this point – that for Americans, no matter what their circumstances, life is protected and safe, while the rest of the world spins into terror – is unclear. Hilderbrand lives on the magical island of Nantucket and sets all her books there. Yet for many Americans, life is not easy at all and never was. Hilderbrand alludes to many of the issues that surrounded this era of social change, including civil rights and the lack of access to legal abortion. Yet she skims over the consequences. The African-American characters in the book are upper middle class, summering at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, hardly the people for whom civil rights activists were risking their lives. Anti-Semitism is called an issue, yet we never see evidence of such prejudice, except in the grandmother, and even then, Jessica, her half-Jewish granddaughter, is her favorite. And even Kirby, the “activist” who attends anti-war demonstrations, is never in danger. There’s always the country club for these characters.

Fifty years on, the summer of 1969 is worth talking about. I would argue that 1968 was the more transformative, with student rebellions happening all over the world, and political assassinations, (Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King) bringing in their wake more profound change. But truly, not much changed that year on Nantucket. And not much does, in this book. Of course, many a famed writer took a small domestic situation to make a point about human nature while war was
exploding off the scene (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf). But those writers never claimed to be writing about “the most tumultuous summer of xxx century”, to paraphrase this book’s cover. While The Summer of ‘69” was a truly enjoyable read, and I admire Hilderbrand’s professional skill, I’m still waiting for the definitive novel set in this amazing time in history.