Published by Random House Publishing Group on September 29th 2015
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Late October, 1962. Wes Avery, a one-time Air Force tail-gunner, is living his version of the American Dream as loving husband to Sarah, doting father to seventeen-year-old Charlotte, and owner of a successful Texaco station along central Florida’s busiest highway. But after President Kennedy announces that the Soviets have nuclear missiles in Cuba, Army convoys clog the highways and the sky fills with fighter planes. Within days, Wes’s carefully constructed life begins to unravel.
Sarah, nervous and watchful, spends more and more time in the family’s bomb shelter, slipping away into childhood memories and the dreams she once held for the future. Charlotte is wary but caught up in the excitement of high school—her nomination to homecoming court, the upcoming dance, and the thrill of first love. Wes, remembering his wartime experience, tries to keep his family’s days as normal as possible, hoping to restore a sense of calm. But as the panic over the Missile Crisis rises, a long-buried secret threatens to push the Averys over the edge.
With heartbreaking clarity and compassion, Susan Carol McCarthy captures the shock and innocence, anxiety and fear, in those thirteen historic days, and brings vividly to life one ordinary family trying to hold center while the world around them falls apart.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
A Place We Knew Well is gripping historical fiction. As politics break down between the US, Russia, and Cuba, Wes Avery endures a breakdown in his own family. Orlando is a small, quiet town surrounded by the military industrial complex. As tensions rise in Cuba, more planes land at McCoy Air Force Base and more trains deliver bombs until the military takes over the rails entirely and starts commandeering the gas and big trucks they need to deliver troops and supplies to south Florida. The milkman delivers security status reports every morning (Defcon 2 today, Wes), and his wife is on a committee that educates citizens on bomb shelters and shelter supplies. But the Cuban Missile Crisis isn’t Wes Avery’s only worry. He and his wife hold a big secret–one that threatens to destroy their family just as tension is at its highest.
The best part about McCarthy’s storytelling is that the Avery family’s dramatic crescendo mimics the dramatic crescendo of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This, unfortunately, means that the story starts slow and only gradually builds momentum. But the feeling of impending doom gets passed along to the audience. It’s like listening to the slow, rhythmic beating of a drum that increases in tempo until the drum roll sounds so unsustainably fast that you’re sure your heart is going to stop.
Underneath the tension is a subtle storyline and commentary about women’s health practices in the 1960s. Sarah Avery struggles with depression and PTSD associated with a forced hysterectomy. Her feelings are ultimately passed off as histrionics, leaving her overly medicated and close to a breakdown. McCarthy does a great job exploring the issue in subtle and meaningful ways. Her doctor means well, but he assumes too much about things he does not know. Wes does the best he can, but he has to rely on the doctor’s knowledge and advice. In the end, we learn that Sarah (and all the women like her) is the real victim.
I found Wes an interesting character. He’s representative of the kind of nostalgia people have for the American Dream. The former WWII vet has attained it, but through McCarthy’s careful storytelling, readers will see that even the most faithful Americans, the seemingly most deserving of the American Dream, have trouble holding it in their grasp.
A Place We Knew Well offers historical fiction fans an inside look at all the uncertainty and fear that accompanied the Cuban Missile Crisis.
© 2015 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.