Day 780: A Place We Knew Well

Cover for A Place We Knew WellI was a kid during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I don’t remember it as having much effect on our lives. I do remember the ridiculous duck-and-cover exercises and the display of model fall-out shelters, but I only remember one family that had one. I grew up in Michigan, not Florida, though, where things were apparently different.

Wes Avery realizes that something is up early on Friday, October 19, 1962. He is a former air force gunner, who took part in bombing raids over Japan during World War II. When the nearby McCoy Air Force Base begins a build-up, he notices right away.

The rest of his family is absorbed in other activities so at first doesn’t notice his concern. His wife Sarah is depressed and traumatized over a hysterectomy that was performed on her without her consent a couple of years before, after a miscarriage (sadly, all too common at that time). Her doctor is treating her with far too many pills. Charlotte, their daughter, has been picked for the Homecoming court. She is worried that she will be the only girl without a date until Wes’s employee and best friend Steve suggests that another employee, Emilio, a Cuban refugee from a good family, take her.

Emilio and Charlotte are happy about this solution, but Sarah tries to talk Charlotte into waiting, knowing that other boys whom Sarah considers more suitable will ask her. Wes has to field arguments from Sarah, who obviously thinks he tries too much to please everyone. Added to all this tension, as everyone’s awareness of the situation with Cuba grows, is a family member’s reappearance, which makes West feel disloyal to Sarah.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is effective at building tension and sympathy for Wes in the situation in which he finds himself. Despite what has happened to Sarah, it is not as good at evoking sympathy for her. Although her preoccupations turn out to have a deeper basis, if only in her own mind, they seem trivial compared to the possible immanence of war and the difficulties Wes finds himself in. I think we should feel more deeply for Sarah, but for some reason, we don’t, perhaps because her concern over Charlotte’s first date and her apparent snobbery seems so ridiculous. (Of course, there is a reason for that.)

However, overall I think this novel does a great job of evoking time and place. I think the closing chapter, a letter written in present time, is a little too didactic, though, and serves as an anticlimax even though we want to know what happened to the characters.

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