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1969: Echoes of Vietnam, a man on the moon and Woodstock
by William B. Rotch,
Publisher Emeritus

The Cabinet, Milford, NH, April 17, 2003

You never know where you may run into old friends. For six years Joe and Elise Freda lived on Prospect Hill in Milford. Joe wrote a novel called "Suburban Guerrillas," which was just close enough to the Milford scene to cause readers to speculate which people and which neighborhoods he was describing. Elise sold advertising for the Milford Cabinet and in her spare time spread pigment on canvas to create the kind of paintings that people with taste and money are eager to buy. Then they moved away from Milford. Patty and I also moved from Milford, and we lost touch.

A few weeks ago an invitation came to attend a book signing at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough. Joe would read from his new novel, "The Patience of Rivers," and afterward Elise would take us across the street to the Sharon Arts Center where two of her recent works are on display. A small crowd had gathered at the Toadstool. We all shook hands, and after reading from his novel, Joe started signing copies. I bought one, acting on impulse, for the last thing out RiverMead apartment needs is more books. It turned out to be a very happy impulse.

Joe and Elise live in upstate New York now, and the scene of the novel is a village on the upper Delaware River in 1969, a year of change that was both dangerous and liberating, and would affect the lives of young people approaching college age. It was the year of Vietnam, of a man on the moon, of real estate developments that would soon uproot a quiet town. It was the summer of the music festival at Woodstock, of protests against the war, a year of new freedoms. Joe Freda writes with what a friend of ours in Scotland calls "the seeing eye." His descriptions of everyday life are vivid, meaningful. People have told me of finding a book so exciting that "you can't bear to put it down." This is such a book.

Why do I find his descriptions "meaningful?" First is the river, from which the book takes its name. A river in which to swim, in which to fish for trout and pickerel. A river of placid calm and devastating floods, but above all a river on which to canoe. Nick and Charlie, high school seniors about to leave for college, or perhaps for Vietnam, are a canoe-racing team, up every day at dawn to test their skill and endurance in the cedar racing canoe they have built with love and skill. Early in the book we share the stress of a race of 15 miles downriver. Toward the end of the book another such race dissolves in sadness when they learn of the death of their friend in a firefight in Vietnam. In between we sense the boil of the river as water snarls over rocks, the surge of power as paddles bite the surface of the river. Joe Freda knows the joy of canoeing, knows the rhythm when paddles, canoe and current function as one.

Nick and Charlie share life in a town that seems to have no future. They and their girlfriends fight boredom by drinking too much beer, smoking too much marijuana, driving too fast, hanging out to the pulsing rhythm of the local jukebox as they try to grasp the meaning of a world that seems to pass them by. Nick's mother and father struggle to manage a campground, to rent canoes, and retain some of the simplicity of the family farm. Charlie's father is a partner in the business, and his philosophy that the way to make money is to spend money leads the campground to disaster and very nearly destroys two marriages.

In the end Nick goes off to college and Charlie follows his dreams in another direction. He moves to a commune in Vermont where he raises vegetables, sells homemade furniture, leads the simple life. Nick laughs when he is told about it. "What's so funny?" asks Charlie. Nick replies: "You're hanging out in a commune, figuring out how to make communism work, and Nixon is sending guys like us halfway around the world to kill people who want to do the same thing."

This episode followed descriptions of Woodstock, that incredible, still talked-about gathering of hundreds of thousands of young people in the muddy fields of upstate New York who for three days in 1969 camped in the rain, smoked dope, listened to the best-known bands in the country, and for a time proved – or at least convinced themselves – that peace and love were the driving forces of humanity. Woodstock is one of the dominating themes of Joe Freda's book, which tells of the effect on the neighboring towns, the clashes of reality and dreams, the feelings of those who were part of what became known as the Woodstock Nation.

The strength of "The Patience of Rivers" is not in individual episodes, or even in the skill with which Joe Freda has woven them into a narrative of intrigue, loyalty – and disloyalty – and of life in a small town not unlike Milford in the pre-World War II years. The strength is in his mastery of dialogue, how young people talked, acted, probed each other's bodies and emotions in a time of turbulence.

A few paragraphs ago I wrote that this is a book that the reader cannot bear to put down. I did put it down, of course, but not until after reading the final page.

"The Patience of Rivers"
By Joseph Freda
W.W. Norton & Co., New York

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