I wasn’t looking for a theme, but in the last few weeks I just happened to read two books set in the US and Central America during the 1960s. I was a baby when Kennedy was assassinated and only half experienced this decade as a young child. Yet it keeps a grip on my consciousness – a combination of selective nostalgia for the music and the changing attitudes and a fascination with that era’s dubious social politics and reshaping of world order. These two books, Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, delivered on both fronts.
A Book of Common Prayer was written in 1977 and has enjoyed a resurgence since the author’s death last year. (I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it given that I’ve been an admirer of Didion’s non-fiction for decades.) Set mostly in the fictitious country of Boca Grande, somewhere in Central America, it dips in and out of the US, where the main characters are from, with flashbacks and flashforwards. A personal and political story, the novel gently satires the privileged lives of Americans in the corrupt country, war-torn and exploited by American involvement. The narrator, the widowed Grace, owns most of the country’s land and knows its political secrets when she meets Charlotte, a wealthy and naïve norteamericana, as she is called. Charlotte, married to a lawyer who traffics weapons, is eluding the FBI, who are searching for Charlotte’s fugitive daughter, an architype of the 60s rebellious generation. Keenly observing Charlotte’s behaviours that range from flippantly self-centred to darkly mysterious, Grace’s narration exudes a controlled voice that delivers wry comments with aplomb. It’s writing that leaps out at you while never neglecting the character-driven story or the slippery ruthlessness of the US presence in Central America at that time.
Angie Cruz’s Dominicana came out in 2019 and is mainly set in New York in the 60s, when immigrants were arriving from the Dominican Republic to escape poverty, civil war and ultimately an American invasion. In the Dominican Republic, Ana, aged 15, is chosen to marry Juan, who has negotiated a deal to purchase her family’s land and take Ana to America, where he and his brothers are working. With falsified documents, Ana becomes 19 and soon finds herself in a starkly different culture where she doesn’t speak the language, spending her days alone cooking and cleaning for her abusive two-timing husband. The stranger in a strange land is a worn trope, but here it works because it doesn’t drive the plot. The need to send money home to her family and contend with her own personhood while pregnant move this story into a page-tuner. Along with delving into the hardships of immigration and oppression of women, the reader is treated to glimpses of 60s America, where vintage episodes of I Love Lucy bemuse and influence Ana’s views of Americans. Though stylistically not in the class of Didion’s writing, it has its literary moments, including a delightful sex scene featuring a pregnant woman.
Both novels fed into my 60s selective nostalgia, while reminding me of the difficulties of the time. If I could time travel, I wouldn’t go back to that decade, especially as an adult, especially as a woman. Some time periods are best viewed from the vantage point of hindsight with a helping of fictional escapism.