A celebrated Island writer takes a novel look at the summer of ‘68
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
"Loss of Innocence" by Richard North Patterson. Release date, October 2013, from Quercus, New York and London. 368 pages in softcover, $26.95. Available at Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, and at Island libraries.
Shortly after leaving his house one morning more than 25 years ago, Richard North Patterson had an idea that paid off for him and for us.
"I remember the day and the hour. I was a junior partner in an Alabama law firm, off on another three-day business trip. I was looking at my small son at the door as I was leaving and the thought occurred: Can I find another way to make my living that didn't take me away from my family and home?" he recalled last week. "On the plane that morning I decided to write a novel. I'd read about 16 Ross Macdonald mysteries so maybe that had something to do with it, but I sketched out a plot on the plane, hid it for six weeks, then began writing." That was 22 novels ago.
Now Mr. Patterson is not what you would call a scattered creative type. He lawyered for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and was the state of Connecticut's youngest attorney general ever, but he is a believer in doing what you love. He loves to write books.
If you read Mr. Patterson's last book, "Fall from Grace" (2012) and liked it, you'll love "Loss Of Innocence," the second book in a planned trilogy about two Island families. Both books examine conflicting life perspectives between the haves and the have-nots using the appropriate setting of Martha's Vineyard. "Loss Of Innocence" also deals with the political and social watershed summer of 1968, both on the Island and in America, as Island residents call it. The third in the trilogy, "Winter in Eden," is scheduled for a summer 2014 release.
Speaking by phone from his West Tisbury home, Mr. Patterson shows up as an engaging, regular guy who is clearly thrilled to be a reluctant lawyer turned novelist. You can meet Mr. Patterson on Thursday, Oct. 3, at 7:30 pm at the Martha's Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven, an event benefiting the West Tisbury Library and the M.V. Film Society (MVFS). He will discuss his work and "Loss Of Innocence" in an interview format with poet and journalist Laura Roosevelt. Tickets are $25; $20 for MVFS members.
"Loss of Innocence" is a prequel to "Fall from Grace," which chronicled the adult life and mysterious death of Ben Blaine, a poor Island kid from an alcoholic home. In "Fall from Grace," Ben is a 60-ish Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist, the darling of the literati dealing with the personal price he paid for his hunger for fame. Ben spent his youth watching and working for the Island's summer rich and ultimately became one of them.
The prequel is the story of young Ben Blaine recounted by Whitney Dane, recent Wheaton college grad affianced to a proper young man who works at her father's New York Wall Street firm. This is to be Whitney's last single summer, to be spent planning an early fall wedding. But Whitney struggles to come to terms with her nascent feelings for the generation of social change and protest, and for a young and angry Ben Blaine. Neither of those perspectives are embraced even a little bit by her socialite mom and her dad who's working and spending hard for the Richard M. Nixon presidential campaign.
Mr. Patterson has crafted a richly-layered look at the loss of innocence not only among his characters but that which America lost as a nation. Ben had achieved major status points with acceptance by Yale, and then dropped out to campaign for Bobby Kennedy. He returns to the Island after RFK's assassination disillusioned and bitter, kicking at the ashes of Camelot.
For readers who were or came of age in the 60s, this story will resonate and bring back the where-were-you moments of America's great upheaval. Mr. Patterson's vivid recall of that year in "Loss of Innocence" is intentional and personal.
"I graduated college in 1968 and the events of that year are important to me. So many events happened that year than perhaps any year in our history," he said, enumerating a laundry list of events and movements in 1968: "The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Vietnam protest, Chicago [war protesters were bloodied by Chicago police during the Democratic National convention] withdrawal, sexual revolution on campus and in the country, real disaffection between kids and parents, and the civil rights and the women's movement.
"I've always wanted to write about the women's movement through the eyes of a woman," he said. Mr. Patterson did the work to get it right, extensively interviewing women familiar with the era, including 10 women who are 1968 graduates of Wheaton College, Whitney Dane's new alma mater. He received a thumbs-up from Gloria Steinem on the voices he created, including Whitney, her mother and her substance-abusing sister, and BFF Clarice Barkley, a powerful and important character in Whitney's loss of innocence.
While men writing women's characters is a growing trend, Mr. Patterson said he encountered commercial hesitancy from the publishers. "Publishers were not enthused. They thought I wasn't writing from my strength, but I felt fairly confident that I had it right for a couple of reasons.
"First, part of the fallout from the women's movement is that men and women have had the opportunity to talk with a fair degree of candor. And I interviewed a lot of women. For example, I had countless interviews with Marcia Gay Harden, a Tony and Oscar-winning actress and women who would have been Whitney's contemporary at college. So to the extent I've achieved that, I feel good about [Whitney]," he said.
Mr. Patterson has delivered a strong and authentic read here. Authenticity is important, particularly to Boomers who lived through the era and perhaps just as important to a generation born several decades later who see the 60s generation in shorthand as a really long party, from Woodstock to Haight-Ashbury.
What Mr. Patterson points out here is that while everyone gets older, growing up is optional.