Tag Archives: 1960s

Book Review: Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).

is this tomorrow

            Fear of communism and nuclear war permeated the psyches of millions of Americans in the 1950s.  Public and private concerns were heightened by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he proclaimed that hundreds of Communists had infiltrated the United States government.  Many writers and entertainers were accused of sympathizing with Communists and thus were blacklisted.  His accusations were later disproved, but that did not stop his fervor from spreading.

In her tenth and best novel, Is This Tomorrow, expert storyteller Caroline Leavitt capitalizes on these anxieties.  “You can’t trust these Communists,” one of Leavitt’s minor characters maintains.  “They couldn’t tell the truth if they wanted to….You kids think it’s funny, but any second a missile could come down on us,” he insists.  “And we wouldn’t even see it or be prepared.  One minute we’re here talking in this nice neighborhood, and two seconds later, boom, we’re ash.”  In his eyes, the Russians “hide explosives” and could be anywhere, even in his own neighborhood, “and we wouldn’t even know it.”

The era in which Leavitt sets her story is perfect for her setting.  Father Knows Best gently reminds American kids who is boss in the household.  Echoes of “just wait until your father gets home” are heard all across the United States as the mother keeps house and raises the children and the father brings home the bacon.  Doors are left unlocked.  Sunday is the Lord’s day.  The post-war economy is booming, and so is the birthrate.  Everything seems idyllic, but appearances often deceive, as we all know.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is at its frostiest with no signs of thaw.  Nuclear annihilation is a real and daily threat as school kids are taught to duck and cover and worried fathers build bomb shelters.  New phrases such as Red Scare and Yellow Menace become part of the everyday lexicon.  Americans view those who are different, who do not conform, who look different, who sound different, and who worship differently with contempt.  Anyone deemed not like everyone else was considered deviant.

Life seems peachy for Americans, but ugliness and fear lurk just under the surface.  This juxtaposition is at the heart of Leavitt’s taut, atmospheric, and humane tale.  Blending a coming-of-age saga with history and mystery, Leavitt creates a tense and suspenseful atmosphere when a neighborhood boy goes missing.

Is This Tomorrow is told from three different and varied perspectives: Ava, divorcee, working mother, and the head of the only Jewish family on the block; Lewis, her son; and Rose, her son’s best friend and sister to Jimmy, the youth who vanishes.  Although Jimmy is not a narrator, his disappearance looms over the novel; his presence and his absence are powerfully palpable.

Because Ava is different from the other neighborhood parents, she is suspect.  Ava locks her doors when all the other doors are unlocked; she works when the rest of the mothers do not have jobs outside the home.  She does not dress like the other mothers and she has had a string of boyfriends. The neighbors see her as a floozy.  These things do not necessarily damn her, though.  Other parents believe she may have had an inappropriate relationship with her son’s best friend.  Ava denies it but admits she knew Jimmy had a crush on her.  He was at Ava’s the day he went missing.

Jimmy’s disappearance profoundly changes the lives of all of Leavitt’s main characters.  Jimmy’s departure leaves Ava, Lewis, and Rose stuck and unable to go forward.  The calendar turns and they grow older, but they are still stuck in the moment Jimmy faded away forever.  They have too many loose ends in their lives, and the burning desire to know what happened drives them.

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rose, Jimmy’s sister, becomes a teacher but never forgets her family tragedy as she desperately pleads with the principal to put a fence around the playground so school kids will not wander off.  Lewis withdraws from his mother and searches for his father, who once wanted custody of Lewis but has since vanished himself.  Ava feels alone and bakes pies that she sells to a local restaurant but has never forgotten Jimmy and the day he seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Leavitt hooks you in the first chapter when young Jimmy goes missing and does not let you go until the very last page.  I was riveted.  Leavitt provides readers with timely and weighty issues such as missing children, difference, and paranoia.

With expert pacing, the author takes her time revealing secrets.  This master storyteller is meticulous and wise as she teases out every detail but still keeps you guessing.  Is This Tomorrow is atmospheric and taut and has everything you could ever want in a book: compelling, fully realized characters; an intense, dramatic, and compelling plot; and the perfect, evocative setting.  Everything comes together superbly in Leavitt’s skilled hands.

The title is taken from a propaganda comic book that came out in 1947 and warned of the dangers of a Communist takeover.  An estimated four million Americans purchased the educational comic, no doubt contributing to the fear and paranoia of the 1950s.  In Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt brings this era to life and illustrates how fear of the unknown and fear of difference transformed a country, a community, and a people.  Although her book is set primarily in a time very different from our own age, Is This Tomorrow is a cautionary tale for us in the Twenty-First Century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Caroline Leavitt, Author of Is This Tomorrow

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Caroline, for letting me ask you these questions.  I devoured Is This Tomorrow  in one sitting and loved the tense, suspenseful atmosphere you create.  I know this novel is very personal to you.  What was your inspiration for Is This Tomorrow?

Caroline Leavitt: I grew up in the 60s and my family was the only Jewish family on a Christian block. I grew up hearing, “You killed Christ,” and “Where are your horns?” and in third grade, I was even given a test on Jesus and the apostles in public school! But there was another family that was even more outcast—a divorced woman with two kids. She had a lot of boyfriends, she was sultry, and she was therefore, suspect. I was friends with her daughter who kept telling me that the family she babysat for was going to adopt her and I kept telling her that was impossible.

But it actually happened. Her mother gave her up, she left with this family, and shortly afterwards, the woman and her son just vanished. I was haunted by that.  I wanted to write about what it feels like to be an outsider in a closed community, and I also wanted to write about the 1950s, when everything was supposed to be perfect and everyone was supposed to be the same, and anyone who was not, was somehow punished.

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

CL: I did! I was a sickly little girl with asthma who spent a lot of time in the library or at home when other kids were playing.  I wanted to validate my experiences and I could do that by writing about them. Plus I loved creating these whole worlds!

JB: Please describe Is This Tomorrow using ten words or less.
CL: Tense. Paranoia. Yearning. Fear. Suspicion. Love. Mothers/sons. Fathers/ sons.

JB: Is This Tomorrow is your tenth novel.  How was writing this book different from writing your first or second book?  Does it come easier?

CL: It never gets easier. There’s a famous John Irving quote (I love John Irving) where he says if you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, that you have no authority to tell your story, and that everything is about to fall apart instantly, than you are not writing hard enough. You are supposed to feel sick with nerves and terror! And I think he’s right.

Every book is something brand new and it is always hard, filled with terror, filled with joy, and monumentally difficult and wonderful. It’s different than writing my first because I know to expect these states so I don’t panic over them as much anymore!

JB: I often hear that writing a book and then seeing it on shelves is like being pregnant and giving birth. Is it like that for you?
CL: I would say no, because for me being pregnant was pure bliss. I loved all of it, from the morning sickness on down to the labor pains. And giving birth was just a day out of the whole 9 months. To me writing a book is more like running a marathon with a stone in your shoe and blisters on your feet, and every once in a while someone hands you a band-aid and some cold water.

JB: Your family moved to the suburbs of Waltham, Massachusetts, in the 1960s.  Yours was the only Jewish family in a predominantly Christian neighborhood.  How were you seen as “different”?  Did you feel like an outsider?
CL: I was a total outsider. I wasn’t just Jewish, I was also sickly with asthma, and I was really smart in a town where only 10 percent of the high school went on to college and being smart was viewed with suspicion. (Many people thought that smart people were Communists.) One of the ways I got through it was looking to the future. I knew I would get out of Waltham, that I’d go to college, that I’d be a writer.

is this tomorrow

JB: Which character’s voice did you hear first while mulling this story in your head?

CL: Ava.  I heard and felt Ava’s pain in struggling to make a home for her son, to avoid her ex-husband getting custody, to get to work on time, and to deal with the adoration of her son’s best friend all at once!

JB: Why did you set your story in the 1950s and 1960s?

CL: Because it’s such a fascinating time for me. The suburbs in the 1950s were supposed to be the American dream! There was money in the bank, cars in the garages, women had all these modern conveniences, yet the undercurrent was that everyone was terrified of the atom bomb and of a Communist takeover. There were all sorts of pamphlets written about how to spot a Communist (beware of multi-syllabic words!) and how to survive an atom bomb (Wipe your feet before you come in the house to get rid of excess radiation.) Women were second class citizens and people were very, very paranoid about anyone even remotely different. The 60s was on the cusp of change, but even in the early sixties, it was still pretty unsettling a time.

JB: Is Ava loosely based on your own mother?

 

CL: Not really. Though when Ava marches up to the school to complain that Lewis has a test about the apostles—that was my mom!

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Is This Tomorrow?

CL: When I had to write what happened to Jimmy and why. I felt such despair. I wanted to skirt over it, but I knew that I couldn’t, and it haunted me for weeks.

JB: Did you discover anything new about yourself in the midst of writing Is This Tomorrow?

CL: I discovered a new compassion for the people who had made my life difficult when I was young. In creating fully realized characters, I began to understand that they had their own issues and problems and they were doing what they felt they had to do. And I began to realize that writing about my childhood in Waltham was actually liberating. I could look at it through a much more compassionate lens.

JB: How were earlier versions of the story different from the final copy?

CL: The earlier versions were not fully formed. Around the 6th draft, I realized part of the book was a meditation about mothers and sons, and letting go. Around the 8th draft, I began to see that there was a love story forming and so I worked really hard on that. And around the 20th draft, I knew what exactly had happened to Jimmy and why.

JB: Do you have lots of different ideas for future stories in your head at one time?  If so, how do you decide which idea to pursue, what to keep for later, and what to discard?

CL: I do. If it haunts me over six months, I know it’s a keeper. I have a folder called NEW NOVELS and I throw in ideas. Some of them are things I’ve been wanting to write for years and years, but I just haven’t figured out how yet.  To me, it’s all in the timing. Some ideas are like wine. They just have to be aged a bit for me to realize what the real story is and why it’s important to me.

JB: You are also an avid reader, reviewer, and blogger.  How has blogging changed book marketing and publicity?

CL: Blogging is fantastic! I started blogging because I thought that was what writers were supposed to be doing, but then I was also reviewing books for People, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe, and there were often books I loved that I couldn’t place, or I couldn’t pitch because I was friends with the writer (that’s considered unethical). So I figured what I could do was conduct interviews with writers. That way I could give them press and I could have fun and learn something about writers I admire!  There are fewer and fewer newspapers and book review sections, and blogging takes up the slack beautifully.

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

CL: I’m a movieholic. I love independent films (I was actually a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab this year), but I will see anything that moves on the screen, which means a lot of times friends refuse to go with me because of my choices. I also read all the time and I love prowling NYC, and going from museums to shops to restaurants to parks.

JB: Any hidden talents we don’t know about?

CL: Well, I was the proud owner of a gorgeous tortoise for 20 years. I used to walk him in Central Park. I wrote about him for NYT Modern Love. Before I got married, my tortoise was my litmus test for boyfriends. If a man would eat dinner while the tortoise was on the table, then he was a keeper.

JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

CL: John Irving, The Ciderhouse Rules, The World According to Garp

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isobelle
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake

Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Anything by the Brontes!

And of course all my writer friends’ books. If it is on my blog, chances are I adore it.

JB: There are so many great books that come out each month (even each week).  How do you decide which books to read and review for your blog?
CL: I’m a great scout. I sometimes hear about books by seeing a post on FB or twitter. Sometimes writers or publicists will write to me about a book, or sometimes authors will suggest other books that I might like.

JB: What advice do you have for anyone working on a first novel?

CL: Don’t. Give. Up. See if any part of your novel in progress might work as an excerpt. (Check out Poets & Writers, a great resource for that.) Try to build community with other writers so you have a support system in place. Always help other writers. It’s good karma and that also helps you build community.  Attend conferences so you know editors and agents.
Also, do not write for the market. Do not write for a reader. You will kill your art. The way to reach others is to write for yourself, to dig deep. That is what will make your work universal and true.

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?

CL: I get up at 7 to see my son off to school, then I hit my desk and stay there until lunch. My husband works at home, too, and we have lunch together. Sometimes we take off and go see a movie! But then we are back at our desks until dinner. After dinner is what I call clean-up time, where I handle all the odds and ends I have to do. But we have a rule. No working after ten. And we stay up until one, so we can decompress and have a life!

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Is This Tomorrow?

CL: That fitting in, especially in a closed community, is not always what you want or need to do. That you can find your own community and it may not look anything like what you thought it would, but it can still nourish and support you. That paranoia can destroy lives. That love and hope can save them.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?outdoorshot12-03
CL: I just sold a proposal for my next novel, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD to Algonquin, which I now have to write. It should be out 2015. It’s set in the waning days of the 1960s and the early 70s when all the peace and love movement began to turn ugly, and it centers around a young girl who runs off with her older high school teacher to a back-to- the- land Utopia, which turns unexpectedly tragic.

JB: Thank you, Caroline, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

CL: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!

 

 

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Coming of Age in the 60s

Are you looking for a great summer read?  Are you a fan of Fannie Flagg?

If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, please add Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers to your summer reading list.  You will be glad you did!

I reviewed Rogers’s novel for the Mobile Press-Register.  To read my review of the novel, please go here.

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Interview with Morgan Callan Rogers, Author of “Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea”

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is a heartfelt debut.  Rogers gives us a coming-of-age tale set in 1960s Maine.  Florine Gilham is an unforgettable character, and I laughed with her and cried with her.  So will you.  Florine reminded me so much of Fannie Flagg’s Daisy Fay Harper, the main character in her novel, Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (also known as Coming Attractions).  I sought out Rogers for an interview via email and she kindly accepted.

Jaime Boler: Morgan, thanks so much for letting me ask you these questions!  When did you begin writing Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea?

Morgan Callan Rogers: I began the book seven years ago, in 2004. It was originally a short story that turned into a novella. Actually, it’s ‘backstory’. The original short story involved an adult Florine who was having a conflict with someone in her life. Someone asked me what the source of the conflict was, and I began to write an explanation. Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is the ‘explanation’.

JB: What was your inspiration for this novel and for Florine?

MCR: Ooh – this is such a fun question and I love answering it. So – it’s important to pay attention to all sorts of flotsam and jetsam – the weirdnesses that happen in our every day lives. Sometimes, they turn into novels, or pieces of art, or music, and so on. Okay – so the inspiration for this novel came from a letter to the editor in a community newspaper. The writer of the letter wrote as she would speak – in a perfect Maine dialect. The subject of the letter: lawn ornaments that had been stolen from her neighbors. The writer was incensed about the theft and wrote about how special the ornaments had been, and what they meant to her neighbors. I was in the middle of my Masters in Fine Arts degree in creative writing at the time, so I decided to write a story from the point of view of the ‘neighbor’, who turned out to be Florine. I named her right off, and she opened her mouth, and her story tumbled out.

JB: You have been compared to both Fannie Flagg and Elizabeth Strout.  How does it feel to hear your name alongside these talented writers?

MCR: Humbling. Elizabeth Strout’s book, Olive Kittredge, is an amazing piece of literature. And Fannie Flagg is brilliant and funny. So, yes, humbling.

JB: Why was the novel published first in Germany in 2010?  Could you not find a US publisher at the time?

MCR: My agent was shopping the novel around the U.S. While she was doing that, a foreign ‘scout’ came into the agency and saw the manuscript, thought it might be a good fit for a small, but awesome German publishing company that just happened to specialize in coastal communities and on the sea. And they loved it, and I had the amazing privilege of working with them for a year before it was sold to Viking. And Viking – I mean Viking. Look at the list of authors that have been published there! Again, humbling. By the way, I have an awesome agent – just had to say that.

JB: Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is set in Maine, where you grew up.  How difficult was it to capture the state’s beauty and its people on the page?

MCR: It was a labor of love, and a love letter to the people I grew up with and the gorgeous, tough and tender place where I was raised. It was not difficult at all. I loved writing it all down.

JB: As I was reading your book, such nostalgia struck me, both for the idyllic seaside setting and for a seemingly more innocent time.  How would Florine’s story be different if it were set in Maine today?

MCR: Good question. Well, everyone would have a cell phone, so her mother could be tracked. The way missing folks are located is a completely different process now. Florine would have a laptop and access to the bigger world, and probably she would whine until she got an iPhone. Coffee would be made with a French press, or Ray’s store might have a Starbucks attend. Florine could download any tunes she wanted, and might be able to ‘friend’ her cousin, Robin, who appears briefly, but is important, none-the-less. Technology rules the earth, now. It was a more ‘innocent’ time, although the fear of being bombed and the threats set off by the Cold War were ever-present. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, then Robert Kennedy, then Martin Luther King, things changed forever.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea?  If so, which one?

MCR: Well, I don’t have a favorite character, but I think the one that surprised me the most, that kept showing different aspects of his personality despite the fact that he was supposedly tied to The Point and to his lobster boat, was Florine’s father. He broke my heart. Also, I loved it whenever Dottie walked into a scene. I always breathed a sigh of relief when she showed up.

JB: On your website, I read that you’ve been a librarian, a journalist, an actress, an editor, and a teacher.  Wow!  What got you into writing?

MCR: I have a gigantic imagination. All of the characters and stories in my head had to go somewhere. Down on paper seemed to be the safest and clearest way to claim some sort of sanity. All of the things you’ve listed above played an important part in writing these books. Librarian = access to all kinds of books; Journalist = research, organization, wide-spread interest in all sorts of things; Editor = Clarity and the ability to cut my precious jewels without crying too much; and Teacher = Confidence and knowledge of character.

JB: What is your writing process like?  Can you describe a typical day of writing for you?

MCR: I write in the mornings – from about 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., after I take the dog for a walk, clean the house, brew some tea, and so on. I can write for about four hours. Sometimes I’ll work at night for a little while, but morning seems best for me. I take Sundays off.

JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?  (Please come to the South!).

MCR: So far, I’m ‘touring’ in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. If the novel does really well, maybe I can expand that territory.  I would LOVE to come to the South!

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

MCR: When I can, I sing jazz and blues with a friend of mine who plays guitar. I ride horseback (not well, but I love horses). I read, I walk the dog, I see friends, I like to cook. I like to do many things – time seems to go so fast.

JB: Do you have any favorite authors?  What would you say is the one book you would never part with?

MCR: I have a lot of favorite authors and I can never remember them when I am asked this question. John Irving, Ray Bradbury, Harper Lee, T.C. Boyle, Amy Hempel, Ann Tyler, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas.  So many… Some of the books I will never part with: A Prayer for Owen Meany, Cat’s Eye, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dandelion Wine, Morgan’s Passing, Dubliners, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a little-known but amazing book called The Little Locksmith by Katharine Butler Hathaway.

JB: I read on your blog that you are working on a sequel to Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.  Can you give fans any little sneak peeks?

MCR: Um, no.  I never give sneak peaks. All will be revealed at some point down the road.  :)

JB: Ah, well, a fan can dream…Thanks, Morgan, for a great interview!

Take a look at the new cover!

Take a look at the new cover!

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