Making History: Six Books That Embrace the 1970s ‹ Literary Hub

It’s almost shocking to believe that what was once electric literature of the 1970s has now become historical fiction. Fifty years in the past, it’s no longer what we thought was cutting edge, though it was the era of women’s rights, gay rights, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and funds of bell.

Flash forward to today, and the books set in the 70s still bring to mind dramatic stories from American and world history that resonate powerfully. All fiction stems from human events, real or imagined, but historical fiction pays greater attention to the facts that create those events in terms of time, setting, and character. There is an accountability in place that calls on authors to invent fictional aspects around a central truth.

My selection of six defining books set in the 1970s era – now considered historical fiction – crosses continents and legacies, and each explores how the characters rise up to meet challenges and conflict as they confront cultural and other differences and explore the challenges inherent in that time, many of which, with their central truths, continue to resonate with me as I revisit them.


Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones and the Six
(Ballantine Books)

An immersion in the rock and roll scene of the 1970s in Los Angeles, Daisy Jones and the Six features the unlikely duo of beautiful, raw-voiced up-and-coming singer Daisy Jones and lead guitarist Billy Dunne of The Six. Individually, they experiment with drugs, sex and rock and roll. But when a manager suggests Billy and Daisy perform a duet on the Six’s second album, the song “Honeycomb” becomes an instant hit and Daisy is asked to join the band. “That’s what I’ve always loved about music,” says Daisy. “Not the sounds or the crowds or the good times so much as the words – the emotions, the stories, the truth – that you can let flow from your mouth. The music can to digyou know?” While at times this novel borders on familiar stereotypes, it captures the exuberance of a unique moment in our culture and creates a memorable, gritty narrative of this fictional band’s rise to power.

under the gaze of the lion

Maaza Mengiste, Under the gaze of the lion
(WW Norton)

Set in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974, on the eve of the revolution to overthrow Emperor Haile Selassie, Mengiste’s first novel recounts what happened from several angles. The novel opens in a hospital operating room, where a boy who had been shot during the protest is undergoing surgery for a gunshot wound. Hailu, the doctor who operates on her, has her own complex story. His wife, Selam, is hospitalized in the building’s intensive care unit for congestive heart failure and refuses to seek treatment. His two adult sons, Dawit and Yonas, react to the political climate in radically different ways, one as a pacifist, the other as an activist. The unrest in the city escalates as starvation increases, torture becomes routine, and bodies rot in the streets.

When Hailu is ordered to treat a woman who has been tortured so badly that he knows she could not survive further interrogation, he gives her cyanide. After being thrown in jail and tortured for helping her kill herself, her sons join forces and take action. Mengiste’s ending to this story is deep and vivid, and I trusted his voice throughout to reveal many truths. Despite the violence, disruption, and crimes against humanity, the narrative is fluid and powerful.

go after cacciato

Tim O’Brien, Chasing Cacciato
(Broadway Books)

While the realities of Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne were very compelling in the context of the rock and roll scene, elsewhere in the world the Vietnam War had been a conflict from 1955 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Veteran Tim O’Brien’s novel, which won the National Book Award in 1979, chronicles a non-linear journey by Paul Berlin who determined that being a soldier in Vietnam for the standard tour of duty involves constant walking, and if one were to put the whole march in a straight line, one would end up in Paris, where the AWOL soldier Cacciato goes, and Berlin begins to follow.

The novel opens with an incantatory litany of the dead: “It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, as was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy was scared to death, scared to death on the battlefield, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot in the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead, Ready Mix was dead… The rain-fed fungus growing in the men’s boots and socks and their socks were rotting, and their feet were turning white and soft so that their skin could be scratched with a fingernail…” For people who weren’t in Vietnam and could never have imagined the cruel and haunting realities of participating in this war, O’Brien has created a necessary cauldron of reality that calls forth suffering and estrangement. that last a lifetime.

kushner flamethrower

Rachel Kushner, The flamethrowers

Walk in the The world of 1970s concept art, motorcycle racing, upper-class Italy, and the rampant kidnappings and terrorism that accompanied it. Reno, a young female artist from Nevada with a history of downhill skiing and motocross racing, moves to New York’s Little Italy to try to break into the art world. She becomes involved with Sandro, an older artist and heir to a family fortune of motorcycles and tires whose father, Valera, was a former World War I member of the Arditi, famous for attacking the enemy with flamethrowers. Are artists, as Valera suggests, “those who are useless for other things? Or is the answer to what Sandro believes: “Making art was really the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. So as not to dissolve into it. Kushner’s keen talent for choreographing conflict, his approach to the idea of ​​”speed” in its various guises, and his quest to understand what makes art and what makes an artist, make for an energetic read.

family run

Michel Ondaatje, Family run

The language of this fictionalized memoir is composed of a kind of transcendent poetry. Ondaatje, originally from Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) moved to Britain when he was 11 and then spent much of his life in Canada. In the late 1970s, he returned to Sri Lanka to trace the mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family and seek evidence of his ancestry.

He begins: “What started was the shiny bone of an idea that I could barely hold on to. I slept at a friend’s house. I saw my dad, chaotic, surrounded by dogs, all of them screaming and barking in the tropical landscape. Ondaatje walked the railroad tracks his family had trodden, went to homes, racetracks and harbours, and stood in the monsoons – where he learned they had been. “I wanted to touch them with words,” he wrote. The past he searches for circles around him, though he can never touch it clearly. This book inspires me every time I read it, or read sections of it, which can be enjoyed separately or linearly.

Colum McCann, Let the big world turn
(Random house)

Several threads intersect in this non-linear novel, which won the 2009 National Book Award. The story unfolds against the backdrop of acrobat Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk in August 1974 between the Twin Towers, and the author periodically returns to this event throughout the book. Of Petit, McCann says, “He was just moving. . . . He was both inside and outside his body, indulging in what it meant to belong in the air. Then there is a change of time and place to Ireland to meet Corrigan, a young monk, and his brother Ciaran, who soon land in the South Bronx in the 1970s in the middle of a decaying New York City.

As Corrigan tends to prostitutes gathering under the freeway and Ciaran tends to the bar of an Irish pub in Queen, a group of mothers gather in a downtown apartment to mourn their deceased sons at the Vietnam, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother shoots tricks alongside her daughter, and an artist witnesses a hit-and-run. These seemingly disparate voices come together to form a kaleidoscopic effect, creating a simultaneous vision of the city with its hopes, dreams and traumas. Part of the book’s beauty is evoked by continuous images of sky, earth, and McCann’s attention to risk, elegance, and bravery in tightrope walking.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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