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Back to our future

Thanks to a couple of amazing recent reads, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sixties. Not only what happened then, but also the legacy of those years. I’ve been pondering what we learned, and how those lessons might help us in the major political, economic, and environmental battles we continue to wage today. But first, the books:

I read a lot of fiction, and I particularly love novels with social justice themes, but somehow I missed LAYLA, a debut novel by Céline Keating (Plain View Press, 2011). Set in 2005, it’s the story of a young woman, Layla, whose mother has just died. The mother, whose lifelong political activism was not shared by her daughter, exacted a deathbed promise that Layla would follow her instructions to travel across the country, visiting the mother’s old friends and comrades from her activist past. The carrot was powerful: information about her long-missing, supposedly-dead father.

I love novels that live on the fault lines of big political events and the lives of people caught up in those events, and that’s exactly what LAYLA does. The protagonist is young, disaffected, and disinterested in social justice. Her journey moved me enormously, and I believed in her confusion, her growing awareness, her anger. I loved her courage in facing what seemed like impossible contradictions between right and wrong.

The second book is a memoir. Like LAYLA, it’s set in the recent past but the roots of the story are in the sixties. Bill Ayers’ PUBLIC ENEMY (Beacon Press, 2013) begins during the 2008 election debate when Barack Obama was asked about “a gentleman named William Ayers,” and replied that Ayers was “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” The story that follows, from death threats to cancelled speaking gigs and beyond, moves from the Vietnam War and Weatherman and life underground to parenting young children under siege. Ayers, a respected educator, author, and university professor, is at his most eloquent when he talks about children and learning, both in the classroom and the particular challenges in his own family.

Full disclosure: Bill Ayers is an old friend from those days, even though we disagreed back then about how to make the change our country so desperately needed. These days, we more often agree about how to respond to what’s wrong in our nation. I admire Bill’s tenacity, his commitment and his enthusiasm.

Despite different genres, different styles, different narratives, these two books share some important traits. Both are beautifully written. Both sizzle with energy. Both are page-turners. Both make me think more deeply about politics and families, about how we pass values from one generation to the next, with as little damage, as much passion as possible. And both books remind me – from their very different perspectives – that working for social justice, in any decade, is complicated, often messy, and filled with contradictions and thorny ethical questions. Wrestling with these issues, past and present, and continuing to agitate for social justice, is job one for my generation, for the many sixties activists who still want to change the world.

Note to Western MA folks: Join Bill Ayers for an author event on Tuesday, November 26th, 7:00 pm, at the Broadside Bookstore in Northampton. AND, we'll be discussing LAYLA at the Odyssey Bookshop Fiction Book Group on January 20th (open to anyone who has read the book and wants to talk about it)
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