It’s almost shocking to believe that what was once the electric literature of the 1970s has now become historical fiction. Fifty years in the past, it’s no longer what we once thought of as cutting edge, despite having been the era of women’s rights, gay rights, Watergate, the Vietnam War, and bell bottoms.
Flash forward to today, and books set in the 70s still recall dramatic stories in American and world history that resonate in powerful ways. All fiction grows out of human events whether real or imagined, but historical fiction pays closer attention to the facts that create those events in terms of time, setting and character. There’s an accountability in place that calls upon authors to invent fictional aspects around a central truth.
My selection of six defining books set in the 1970s era—now regarded as historical fiction—cross continents and heritages, and each explores how characters rise up to meet challenges and conflict as they confront cultural and other differences and explore challenges inherent during 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
An immersion into the 1970s rock and roll scene in Los Angeles, Daisy Jones and the Six features the unlikely pairing of up-and-coming, beautiful, raw-voiced singer Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, lead guitarist of the band 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’s invited to join the band. “It is what I have always loved about music,” Daisy says. “Not the sounds or the crowds or the good times as much as the words—the emotions, and the stories, the truth—that you can let flow right out of your mouth. Music can dig, you know?” Though at times this novel verges on familiar stereotypes, it captures the exuberance of a unique moment in our culture and creates a memorable, gritty account of this fictional band’s rise to fame.
Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
(W. W. Norton)
Set in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974 on the eve of the revolution to oust emperor Haile Selassie, Mengiste’s debut novel tells the story of what happened from multiple points of view. The novel opens in a hospital operating room, where a boy who had been shot during the protest is undergoing surgery for a bullet wound. Hailu, the doctor operating on him, has a complex story of his own. His wife, Selam, is hospitalized in the building’s ICU with congestive heart failure and is refusing treatment. His two adult sons, Dawit and Yonas, are reacting to the political climate in dramatically different ways—one as a pacifist, the other, an activist. Turmoil in the city intensifies as famine increases, torture becomes routine, and bodies are left rotting in the streets.
When Hailu is ordered to treat a woman who has been so violently tortured that he knows she could not survive further interrogation, he gives her cyanide. After he’s thrown in jail and tortured for assisting her suicide, his sons join forces and are moved to action. Mengiste’s unraveling of this story runs deep and vivid and I trusted her voice throughout to reveal many truths. Despite the violence and disruption and crimes against humanity, the telling is seamless and powerful.
Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato
At the same time that Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne’s realities were vividly compelling in the context of the rock and roll scene, elsewhere in the world, the Vietnam war had been in conflict from 1955 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Real-life combat veteran Tim O’Brien’s novel, which won the 1979 National Book Award, is chronicles a non-linear path on the part of Paul Berlin who has determined that being a soldier in Vietnam for the standard tour of duty entails constant walking, and if one were to put all the walking in a straight line, one would end up in Paris, where AWOL Private Cacciato is going, and Berlin starts to follow.
The novel opens with an incantatory litany of the dead: “It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through 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 that grew in the men’s boots and socks and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft so that their skin could be scraped off with a fingernail…” For people who weren’t in Vietnam and could never have imagined the cruel and haunting realties of participating in this war, O’Brien has created a necessary cauldron of reality that calls out suffering and estrangement that lasts a lifetime.
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Enter the 1970s’ world of conceptual art, motorcycle racing, upper-class Italy and the rampant kidnappings and terrorism that accompanied it. Reno, a young woman artist from Nevada with a history of downhill skiing and dirt-bike racing, moves to Little Italy in New York City to try to make it in the art world. She becomes involved with Sandro, an older artist and heir to a family motorcycle and tires fortune 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 anything else?” Or is the answer what Sandro believes: “Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.” Kushner’s lively talent for choreographing conflict, her take on the idea of “speed” in its different forms, and her quest to understand what makes art and what makes an artist, make this an energetic read.
Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family
The language in this fictionalized memoir is composed of a kind of transcendent poetry. Ondaatje, a native of 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 retrace the mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family and to look for evidence of his ancestors.
He begins: “What began it all was the bright bone of an idea I could hardly hold onto. I was sleeping at a friend’s house. I saw my father, chaotic, surrounded by dogs, and all of them were screaming and barking into the tropical landscape.” Ondaatje traveled the railways his family had taken, went to the houses and race-courses and harbors, and stood in monsoons—where he learned they’d been. “I wanted to touch them into words,” he writes. The past he searches for circles around him, though he can never clearly touch it. This book inspires me every time I read it, or read sections of it, which can be appreciated separately or in a linear fashion.
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
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 August 1974 walk across a tightrope between the Twin Towers, and the author periodically returns to this event throughout the book. About Petit, McCann says: “He was pureness moving. . . . He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air.” Afterwards, there’s a shift in 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 amidst the backdrop of a decaying New York City.
As Corrigan ministers to prostitutes who gather beneath the expressway and Ciaran tends bar at an Irish pub in Queen, a group of mothers gather in an uptown apartment to grieve their sons who died in Vietnam, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother turns 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 conjured with continual images of the sky, the earth, and McCann’s attention to the risk, elegance, and bravery of the tightrope walker.