‘Regarding Jeffrey:’ A tragicomedy of the 60s

Oak Bluffs author Amy Reece and her family. — Photo courtesy Amy Reece

“Regarding Jeffrey” by Amy Reece, SleighFarm Publishing Group, December 2013. 206 pages. Available at Island bookstores and The Secret Garden in Oak Bluffs, and as an e-book.

At last it’s safe to tell stories about the 60s. A few scattered novels long ago appeared in the UN-safe zone, but mostly publishers (and filmmakers too) veered away from that era. It all seemed cheesy in the immediate aftermath – the leather fringe and the love beads, the long greasy hair and the peace signs – it was impossible to convey the wildness and the energy without it seeming hopelessly idiotic.

And then slowly, from around the 1990s onward, a 60s canon has arisen, with books such as “A Prayer For Owen Meany” and the “The Help,” and movies such as “Catch Me If You Can” and the recent “Inside Llewyn Davis”; these and scores of others have erased the stigma.

Two developments may account for this. The first and most significant is that a majority of America’s present population has lived through that heady time, and a new generation of kids – the babies of boomers – are curious about that bygone era that claimed their parents’ hearts and minds.

The second development is that writers and filmmakers have discovered it’s the human element woven through the murky tribal flashpoints that renders a story memorable and original and, most importantly, exciting.

And so it was for Oak Bluffs resident, Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School teacher and, in her private time, writer, Amy Reece, born in 1956. One morning not so long ago, as she and her teen daughter Lily drove to school, radio tuned to a classic rock station, Lily mused, “It must have been fun growing up in the 60s.” Ms. Reece began to ponder this, and soon enough she sat down to write a riveting coming-of-age tale for young adults, her first book.

“Regarding Jeffrey” begins in October of 1964 as first-grader Linda enters a new school in West Hartford, Connecticut, lost and alone, her teacher, Mrs. Anderson, “circling the playground, reading glasses slid down on her hawk-like beak of a nose as sharp gray eyes scanned the playing field for her six year-old prey.”

Ms. Reece knows how to stir the pot of empathy and alarm in equal measures. We’re folded gently and amusingly into Linda’s family of three brothers; a typically preoccupied, grey-flannel-suited father (think “Mad Men”); and a doting mother 1960s-style, dispenser of turkey sandwiches on whole grain bread, home-baked cookies, “I love you” notes stuffed in lunch boxes and, when the time comes, a trip to the department store for Linda’s first bra, a 34-A.

Linda’s mother also displays a growing, nascent feminist anger: “It was like a dam had broken and her words were the water that pushed their way to flood the landscape of our days.” This rage and resultant strength will tap memories for so many of us who lived through that militant learning curve.

At school we follow Linda through all the seasons from first grade to sixth grade graduation. The girl is occasionally and perhaps perilously drawn to the snotty popular crowd, but she’s mercifully endowed with a best friend, Annie, keeper of all her secrets (Ms. Reece in her acknowledgements thanks a lifelong bestie whose name she borrows for Linda herself).

And then there’s Jeffrey: “Jeffrey Butler never walked. He slunk. He tripped. He sprinted. Jeffrey Butler was never still. He drummed his pencil, danced his feet, and tipped his chair back until he crashed to the floor on an hourly basis.”

He’s grubby, rude, illiterate, a big tease. Linda hates him and yet, through the grammar school years of adversarial tension, and a glimpse into this boy’s tender heart, our heroine gradually and reluctantly becomes sweet on Jeffrey. Nothing beyond sweet. Have no fear. The story ends in the sixth grade, after all, and this is the Hartford of the 1960s, home to Mrs. Spenser’s Ballroom Dance School with its mandatory white gloves for all its students.

Ms. Reece adroitly spools in signs of the changing times with music references such as “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells, scattered sightings of odd pants called bell-bottoms, and a fateful letter for Linda’s older brother from the draft board.

This is a wonderfully rendered, God-is-in-the-details tapestry of a tempestuous epoch, highly recommended for kids aged 10 to 15, but also, surprisingly, hard to put down for this reviewer of advanced middle age (at one point, midway through “Regarding Jeffrey,” this same reviewer unexpectedly burst into tears, and the last time that happened was over the final pages of “Exodus” by Leon Uris, at 3 am in the autumn of 1963).