By 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.