Dreaming of Castro: A Place We Knew Well (review)

A Place We Knew Well (NetGalley)
Susan Carol McCarthy
Bantam Books/Random House
release date: September 29

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of a five-year-old. Of course, I knew nothing about it really. There’s a memory of my mom and dad sitting in the living room with a neighbor couple, and I heard “There’s nothing we can do” (My dad was only a few years back from being PlaceWeKnewWell_eCards1stationed on the USS Bushnell, a submarine tender in the Caribbean) and “I have some water jugs in the basement” (my mom, the consummate planner). Kindergartners know little about the world of negotiation and detente and nuclear annihilation. But kids do dream.

In my dream, our little white duplex at the end of the dirt road was swarming with Castros—they’re at the windows trying to get in, they’re walking around the living room, they’re sitting at the kitchen table. Maybe ten of them. They force my mom sit at the table and refuse to let her get up, even when my dad starts knocking on the back door. And that’s as far as it goes (or as much as I remember), but dreamt it over and over for years.

So somewhere in my little brain, I understood that “the Castros” wanted my house.

Susan McCarthy explores that period in her new novel A Place We Knew Well. Wes Avery, owner of a Big Chief gas station near Orlando, notices more than the usual jet flyovers from the Strategic Air Command base nearby: bombers, a Stratotanker, fighters, even, it was rumored, the new U-2 spy plane. The locals say the U.S. is “getting’ ready to kick out Castro”. Wes’s wife Sarah is busy preparing the Women’s Club Civil Defense Committee’s “first-ever Family Survival and Fallout Shelter Show” in just a few days, showcasing a bomb shelter stocked with the supplies every family needs to “be prepared”. If ever a euphemism fell short, that one did.

But as President Kennedy prepares to speak about the international crisis, other storms are brewing. Sarah, whose sights are set on climbing back up the social ladder she descended after marrying down, struggles with tautly stretched nerves even without the stress of nuclear war. Miscarriages, a recent hysterectomy, family secrets—all weigh on her heavily and stretch that wire even tighter, so that she comes to rely on pills to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to keep going. (The sixties were clearly a time when we believed pharmaceuticals could cure all ills.)

Meanwhile, their daughter, high school senior Charlotte Avery, just wants Homecoming to go off without the hitch of nuclear destruction. Big worries for a country of kids who should be enjoying that carefree childhood we all believe in. Mythical maybe, but still. Charlotte dreams of her dress, a dreamy date, the ride in the parade—and wonders if anyone would still be alive by then.

McCarthy captures a tense period in American history and personalizes it with the Averys, right down to the bologna and cheese sandwiches, frosty glass bottles of cola, and that fairy tale naiveté that we’d never, as a nation, reclaim.

It’s a world I don’t completely remember, but A Place We Knew Well made me think I did.

As a special bonus, join me back at This Is My Symphony next week, Wednesday September 30, when writer Susan McCarthy shares her personal memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis–her inspiration for the novel.

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