Publisher and Publication Date: She Writes Press. June 9, 2020.
Genre: Fiction. Historical Fiction.
Source: I received a complementary ARC paperback copy from Stephanie Barko, Literary Publicist, I was not required to write a positive review.
Audience: Readers who are interested in the late 1960s Berkeley, California. Readers of coming of age stories.
Barnes and Noble link
Link at She Writes Press for more information about the book.
Link for the book excerpt: Playground Zero.
The manuscript was semi-finalist for the Black Lawrence Press 2018 Big Moose Prize
Sarah Relyea is the author of Playground Zero, a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. Sarah left the Berkeley counterculture at age thirteen and processed its effects as a teenager in suburban Los Angeles. She would soon swap California’s psychedelic scene to study English literature at Harvard.
Sarah has long addressed questions of identity in her writing, including in her book of literary criticism, Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin.
With her PhD in English and American literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY, Sarah has taught American literature and writing at universities in New York and Taiwan. She remains bicoastal, living in Brooklyn and spending time on the Left Coast.
Website for Sarah Relyea
Goodreads author page
1968. It’s the season of siren songs and loosened bonds—as well as war, campaign slogans, and assassination. When the Raysons’ family leaves the East Coast for the gathering anarchy of Berkeley, twelve-year-old Alice embraces the moment in a hippie paradise that’s fast becoming a cultural ground zero. As her family and school fade away in a tear gas fog, the 1960s counterculture brings ambiguous freedom. Guided only by a child’s-eye view in a tumultuous era, Alice could become another casualty—or she could come through to her new family, her developing life. But first, she must find her way in a world where the street signs hang backward and there’s a bootleg candy called Orange Sunshine.
My memories of the 1960s is helped in great part, because my four older siblings were teenagers during this era. I am 10-15 years younger than them.
I have especially strong memories of the music. Each sibling had their own music they cherished. For example, my eldest sister JoAnn loved the music from the early 1960s. She never liked the hard rock sound that the other’s loved. Frances loved the Beatles. James loved Led Zeppelin and The Doors. Bobby loved Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
Only my sister Frances during her college years (1970-1973) took part in demonstrations in regard to the Vietnam war and women’s rights.
One last memory I’ll share. When my sister Frances came home to visit from college, she and dad had heated discussions about their different perspectives on current events. I’m a little girl at this time, but I remember being entertained and a bit impressed with how Frances held her own against dad.
Now, Playground Zero.
This is a book that gives much to review about, because it has strong conflicts and themes. Plus, the story creates conversation and opinion.
*What I like about the story is the third-person point of view. The story is told from the third person narrative (he, she, they.) The focus is on the different members of the Raysons’ family. The parents are Tom and Marian. Their children are Curt and Alice. Other characters are included, but this story is about the Raysons. Reading a third-person narrative, I was able to take a seat and watch the story unfold. In this way of telling the story, Playground Zero doesn’t tell or teach me to have an opinion other than the one in my mind. I can read the story and let it unfold, then create my own feeling and judgment.
*I like reading a story that’s out of my normal type read. This broadens my mind at the least. Whether I will end up enjoying the book is another thing.
*The Raysons’ family is an example of parents and children who are not connecting. Each person is focused on something other than each other. Each of them want to connect with something or someone whether it’s another person or an event that will fill what’s absent from their lives. In other words, each of the family members are searching for something that will bring meaning, stability, and intimacy. At times, the kids are looking to a parent for direction and guidance. They are looking for a stable and secure home, because the outside world is a scary place. Instead, the kids get zero help in the home. Is it possible that’s why the title is Playground Zero?
Connection and intimacy are themes and conflicts running through the story.
*When Alice and Curt start school in Berkeley, California, school integration has begun. This is new for them. It’s not new to have relationships with people of the African American race. It is new for African American and white children to be in the classroom together. Alice wants to be a friend no matter the person’s race. However, her good intentions are not matched with other students who are comfortable and accepting. This is an additional conflict in her life. She has a hard time finding a connection whether it’s at home, in school, or in the neighborhood.
Curt is a physical person. He’s athletic. It helps that boys regardless of race play sports together.
*The way the two races of kids treat one another was interesting. I saw a curiosity, but an unwillingness and inability to know how to integrate with one another. This is another conflict in the story.
*One of the things I had trouble with in the book is Alice is ten (and she’s twelve at the end) when the story begins. The story follows the family for a year. Her person seems older-a teenager and not a kid of ten. I had a difficult time believing that Alice is ten. If she’d been thirteen when the story began, then I’d state this story had a believable quality.
*I enjoyed the east coast versus west coast differences. The family began in Washington D.C. and relocated across the country to Berkeley, California.
*I laughed at the adults in the story who complain about people who judge others when they too judge.
*Tom and Marian have strong ideas of what they want their kids to experience. However, being strong stable parents is not one of those ideas.
*I experienced through Alice’s eyes the demonstrations, riots, and the chaos that transpired.
*The story doesn’t focus much on Curt. I wanted to hear more about his life.
*Lastly, there is a closure for the family. A big change comes and the kids are thrust to a new place. Alice has experienced big changes in the year at Berkeley, California. Her person grew in age one year, but in experience probably 30 years. Of course, I’d like to know the rest of her story!
This is not a story that is a feel good story. It is a book that is revealing about people and moments in history. There were times when I was infuriated at the parents. I felt deep sadness for Alice. It is a book I’ll not forget. This is the last point and the main point that led me to give this book an excellent rating: it is memorable!
4 thoughts on “(Review) Playground Zero by Sarah Relyea”
This is a great review of the book. You expressed a lot of the same thoughts I had.
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Thank you, Annette, for your review. It is much appreciated!
What a wonderful review!
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