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Hearts in Atlantis

31 August 2019

Hearts In AtlantisHearts In Atlantis by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I marked this one as “To Read” after reading a review by an online acquaintance, and when I found a copy in the library I wasn’t disappointed. I think it is one of his best books.

By coincidence, last Friday I heard someone speak on Adverse Childhood Experiences and their long-term effects, and in a way that is exactly what this book is about. The first half of the book is about childhood at the beginning of the 1960s.

Bobby Garfield wants a bike for his 11th birthday, but his mother nags him about how much it will cost. Only gradually does he become aware that much of her nagging behaviour is due to the pressure she is under at work. He and his close friends Carol Gerber and John Sullivan also live in fear of being bullied by older kids in the neighbourhood who go to another school. Then a mysterious lodger moves in upstairs, who introduces Bobby to the joys of reading, which helps him to interpret some of his experiences. The lodger, however, also seems to be a fugitive of some kind, and asks Bobby to warn him if he sees any signs of the people who are looking for him.

These pressures come to a head, with traumatic experiences all round, and Bobby and his mother move to another town.

The scene then moves to the mid-1960s, with Carol Gerber as a first-year university student. The Vietnam War is escalating and male students are faced with a dilemma — do well at your studies or be drafted to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Their response to the challenge is so play cards. Well, that resonated with me. In Hearts in Atlantis the game they played was Hearts, and in the exact same period, October 1966, I was learning to play Bridge, and used many of the same excuses. But in the book there is also a gradual growth in political awareness. And we see how Carol’s adverse childhood experiences shaped her response. I found her description of this to the narrator of that part the most moving part of the book.

There are some things, however, that Stephen King got wrong. He repeats as fact the urban legend that the “peace symbol” was designed by Bertrand Russell, though he does it to refute an even more inaccurate one that was being spread by the militarists at the time.See here for more about the origins of the peace symbol.

The last sections of the book are fairly short, but show how the Sixties of the last century shaped the lives of those who were young then.

I suppose one would have had to be young and American in the 1960s to fully appreciate this book. One object, perhaps a McGuffin of sorts, is a baseball mitt that keeps turning up. I played enough softball at school when I was 12 to be able to picture the object in question, but to us softball was just a game we played on summer afternoons. I think one would have to have grown up in the USA where baseball is more of a religion to fully appreciate the emotional significance of such an object.

There are interesting  things about language in the book too. I only fairly recently became aware of the American usage of Nimrod, and certainly wasn’t aware of it in the 1960s, though King also mentions the comic character Elmer Fudd, who was responsible for the change in meaning. In the 1960s I was very aware of another American cultural commentator. Tom Lehrer, whom King doesn’t mention, whose song about a Nimrod I greatly enjoyed at the time.

I knew about the Vietnam War and took part in several demonstrations and protest marches against it, so that some of the chants and slogans that King used brought back real memories to me: I remember marching to the chant “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today.” King did not, however, mention the other one we used outside the USA, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; the NLF is gonna win” — which they did, of course. But those of us who lived outside the USA were not faced with the very real possibility of having to actually fight in that war. A decade later, however, a lot of young South Africans (white) were drafted to fight on what the politically correct called “the border”, so some will have similar memories of those times.

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