Title: A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy
Genre: Historical (60s), Literary Fiction
Length: 272 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
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.
In A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy whisks readers back to a tense (and somewhat forgotten) time in American history. The Cuban missile crisis takes center stage in this drama featuring the Avery family and it is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction that is quite riveting.
Gas station owner Wes Avery has a comfortable life in south Florida but once he notices unusual activity at McCoy Air Force Base, he is struck with a feeling of foreboding. A trip out to the air base coupled with some pretty reliable rumors confirms his worst suspicious: something big is happening. That something turns out to be the Cuban Missile Crisis and this tense situation plays out during an equally anxious and difficult time for his family and their rather idyllic life comes to a stunning end when the crisis is over.
Wes settled in Orlanda, FL with his wife Sarah after World War II. Having seen the horrific aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima firsthand, Wes knows better than anyone just how devastating the effects of nuclear war can be. He is understandably concerned about the increasingly frightening situation and he has surprising insight into how events might be playing out behind the scenes. Glued to the TV and the newspapers, Wes’s attention is soon divided between the national crisis and the events occurring at home with Sarah and their teenage daughter, Charlotte.
Sarah is already stressed before the crisis begins and over the next two weeks, she is stretched to the breaking point. Emotionally fragile and prone to bouts of depression, she is increasingly overwhelmed as a hurricane heads their way just as she is preparing for an upcoming Civil Defense presentation. Although thrilled with Charlotte’s nomination to the homecoming court, it also dredges up long ago memories of a dark period in her family’s life. This downward spiral is further complicated by a commonly prescribed cocktail of drugs and ends in a shocking revelation.
The series of events leading up the homecoming dance is a bittersweet period in Charlotte’s life. At the same time she is falling in love for the first time, her childhood innocence is lost when faced with the looming threat of nuclear attack. Her trust is further shaken when a long held family secret is revealed and she is forced grow up fast when Sarah’s condition deteriorates. In the aftermath, Charlotte re-evaluates her plans for the future, and her life is forever altered and somewhat defined by the events of this two week period.
With A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy brilliantly weaves fact and fiction into an extraordinarily mesmerizing story that is thought-provoking, enlightening and emotionally compelling. The historical aspect of the storyline is well researched and presented in such a way that readers cannot help but experience the fear and emotions of the various characters during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Avery family drama is equally gripping and it is impossible not become invested in the final outcome of the events that transpire alongside the national emergency. An incredibly well-written novel that I highly recommend.