What did you do in the 70s Grandma?
If my parents had any misgivings when my best friend and I decided to ride our bikes up to the redwood forest near Santa Cruz, California for an overnight campout, their concerns only took the form of telling us to make sure we brought along enough water to drink along the way.
For kids like me growing up in the California suburbs, life in the seventies meant we were immortal (thanks to the right military deferment), bulletproof (thanks to the occasional shot of penicillin), and love meant never having to say you’re sorry (thanks to the Pill and Roe v Wade).
We were possibly the first and last generation to know so much freedom. We didn’t work on family farms or businesses—our dads had gone to college on the GI bill and bought new ranch houses in the suburbs. We didn’t really have to help much around the house—our moms had quit their wartime jobs to stay home and raise us, with the help of dishwashers, garbage disposals, boxed cake mixes, and new-and-improved everything from sugar cereal to ring-around-the-collar remover.
We could safely go anywhere our bikes or local buses would take us and even though we didn’t have cellphones to check in, our parents didn’t worry. Religious fanatics didn’t move to Guyana and kill over 900 people in a murder-suicide pact. Nuclear power was going to be cheap and clean and never ever cause accidents. Certainly, neither we nor Forrest Gump had ever heard of AIDS.
So when we arrived at the redwood forest, we arranged our sleeping bags under the ancient trees (no tents—it was California) and cooked our hotdogs.
I was wearing my favorite jeans, which I’d been working on for several years. There wasn’t much denim still visible because I’d covered every rip or fray with embroidered patches, designs, and deeply moving sentiments like “LOVE” and “Hi!”. I had my patchwork leather poncho, and my fuzzy newsboy style hat. My hair was long and as straight as an ironing board could make it, while my little wire-rimmed granny glasses with the pink lenses just screamed cool. My friend had something even cooler—the bag of joints she’d stolen from her big brother who was in the navy.
By the time it got dark, we’d linked up with several other teenagers who were also “camping”. We sat inside one of the hollow chimney redwoods, and everyone tossed their offerings into a big bowl in the center. Pills of every color, joints of every size and shape, and a few things that looked like dried mushrooms were piled together like our mothers’ bridge mix. Soon the inside of the tree was filled with smoke and most of us were feeling the whole MakeLoveNotWar thing for our new friends (some quite literally).
And that’s when the park rangers showed up.
“Normally,” they told us, “We wouldn’t hesitate to arrest the lot of you.”
In the dead silence inside our tree, I could practically see the “Oh, shit. There goes college…” bubbles like cartoon thoughts above each head.
“But.” The rangers looked at each of us. “At the moment, we’re more worried about the tree. Do you have any idea how much damage you’re doing to it right now?”
The thought bubbles (or maybe it was those mushroom thingies…) turned to capital letters. “OH SHIT, I’M A TREE MURDERER.” Because if there was one thing our generation was even more about than MakeLoveNotWar, it was The Planet. Just the week before, my friends and I had gone up to San Francisco to buy “Save the whales” and “Stop the baby seal massacre” signs from hippies in the Haight. And now we were murdering trees?
“There’s only one thing that can save the tree,” continued the ranger who seemed to be in charge. “You have to pound on the trunk to get the sap flowing. It will take at least an hour, maybe two, and we have to finish our rounds.”
We climbed out of the tree, and all started tapping the trunk.
“No, you really have to put some muscle behind it. There’s no time to waste.” The ranger seemed to be choking as he spoke. Maybe it was the smoke?
“Just to be on the safe side, I’ll take this.” The other ranger darted into the tree and picked up the goody pile in the center. The two rangers moved back into the shadows as we frantically began pounding on the bark.
I’m guessing those rangers are still laughing…
The reason I was remembering the seventies is that I just read Heliotrope, the new release by one of my favorite authors, JC Miller.
BlurbBuckle up your Birkenstocks and travel back to 1975. Discover (or relive) the pre-digital age in Arcata, a remote Bohemian college town on the northern edge of California. Meet Kit, a hard-working, bookish senior, on track for graduation—that is, until she falls for Jonathan, one-time bestselling author, now her stand-in professor. Jonathan, a master in the art of deception, isn’t who he appears to be. As their bond grows, Kit’s desire blinds her to the truth— a shocking discovery shatters her faith and ultimately tests her integrity. From the first blush of fall quarter to the final breath of spring, hard lessons will be learned. To “graduate” into an uncertain future, Jonathan and Kit must first embrace the present—including the injustices, ambiguities and absolute beauty of their lives. Beneath the ever-changing Humboldt skies they forge ahead; they stumble and sometimes fall. Heliotrope, a coming-of age story for the ages.
- Book Title: Heliotrope
- Author: JC Miller
- Genre: Romantic Literary Fiction
- Length: 259 pages
- Release Date: Booktrope Editions (October 19, 2015)
Contact Links For JC Miller
My Review: 5 out of 5 stars for JC Miller’s Heliotrope
Honestly? I can’t possibly do a balanced review of this book. Oh, sure I could start with the usual things like plot and style and character development. But here’s the problem. Heliotrope isn’t just any coming-of-age story of romance and heartbreak and discovery. It’s very close to being my story. The plot—Kit, a young girl trying to figure out who she needs to be, and Jonathan, a man trying to stop hiding from who he really is—could probably apply to almost anyone who fell in love on purpose only to lose something they never really had. The style is a spare, elegant presentation of a letter-perfect college town in the seventies. JT Miller creates miniature jewels of word pictures, whose every facet owes existence both the author’s excellent memory and her exquisite ability to let readers experience those memories. Kit’s student neighborhood has a “…sophomoric vibe—Birkenstocks, backpacks and unshaven armpits as far as the eye could see…” Jonathan’s tie is heliotrope, a color which manages to perfectly define the seventies, tell us about Jonathan, and hint at Kit’s own future.
“Today he sported a plump tie, one Kit had never seen before. How does a man get away with a color like that? Heliotrope—a dark pinkish purple, suggestive of engorged labia or ripe plums. Kit smiled inwardly, recalling the shapely word heliotrope, which she’d discovered in last quarter’s etymology class. “Helios” was the Greek root for sun. “Tropos” meant turning. Turning to the sun. For Kit, words were like popcorn—she gobbled them.”
But then there are those characters… starting with Kit herself. She’s the good student who has goals, works hard, and stays focused on where she’s going. She arrives at college, and reinvents herself to fit in with the sophisticated people she meets. Then she’s the young woman who deliberately chooses a stranger to love because he seems like the adult she wants to become— “She had fallen in love with him, or at least the idea of loving a grown man.”
This is followed by the inevitably bittersweet moment when Kit realizes she’s outgrown that new identity she invented for herself.
“Like a flower without light, her body went limp. Her mind, however, buzzed with newfound clarity. Somehow, when she wasn’t paying attention, she had outgrown her life. This small and cloistered place, she realized, held nothing for her now… The conformity of cool had grown tiresome—she didn’t even really like tofu.”
In all her incarnations as Kit, Katherine, Kathy, and Kate, this is a young woman I recognize—not because I know her, but because I am her. Or at least I once was a young woman who, like Kit, thought of ourselves as completely free. We had the pill, and antibiotics, Roe v Wade, and any day now we were going to see the Equal Rights Amendment pass. We owned our bodies, our hearts, and our futures.
In many ways similar to Kit, I grew up in California, went away to college, forcibly changed myself from Valley girl to my idea of an intellectual, made lifelong friends (many of whom I never saw again), and indulged in disastrous relationships. Like Kit, I was sure we’d be adult women who were completely free to eat or drink or smoke whatever we wanted (unless it interfered with our classes or jobs of course), and have free and open sex (unless we almost immediately fell into a committed relationship that we’re still in four decades on). And at the same time, we were practically guaranteed success in any career while still achieving a full and rich personal life.
So here’s my review. I don’t actually think that Heliotrope is a coming of age book. That sounds like something inevitable, something predestined to happen no matter what. Instead, I think it’s a book that does a wonderful five-star job of showing how we can invent the person we decide to become, and then make that invention a living, breathing reality. And the secret is that it happens over and over. We outgrow those shells we invent, and we need to find the new ones that fit even better. I expect that if we met Kit today, she would still be making those new and better-fitting shells. (And if she is, JC Miller is clearly the right person to tell the rest of Kit’s story.)
There were a few disappointments, especially in the character of Joe who seems curiously flat and passive. But the other characters more than made up for this, even when they were little more than tropes, such as JJ, the perpetual, slightly pathetic roommate or Erin, the golden girl who seems determined to self-destruct in a flaming blaze. And, although I found him narcissistic, shallow, and self-deceiving, I have to admit that I felt a kinship with Jonathan’s character too.
“More and more, it seemed his life had taken on a dreamlike quality. Maybe he really had died, and just didn’t know it yet. A zombie doomed to dwell the gray areas, caught between the earthly and celestial realms. If not, it was an interesting idea for a third novel.”
Why kinship? Because in his moments of honesty (few and fleeting though they may have been), Jonathan was something I recognized. He was a writer.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**