||By the time we got to Yasgur's farm...
by Chris Bohjalian
The Boston Globe, April 27, 2003
I was in third grade in 1969, and so my principal memories of that year revolve around Little League baseball and a teacher who kept a television set in her classroom and upon whom I thus had a powerful crush. I was not oblivious to the reality that the world was shifting that year I wore a copper-colored peace medallion to school, and most of my parents' Saturday-night dinner parties were raucous affairs that seemed to be but a highball away from someone suggesting they shuffle their driver's licenses like playing cards and start swapping spouses but I recall only vaguely the seminal news events of that year: Neil Armstrong's arrival on the surface of the moon. Woodstock. The Tate-LaBianca murders. The New York Mets. And, of course, the continuing carnage in Southeast Asia and the nation's increasing disgust with the war in Vietnam.
All of these moments in history (and then some) appear in Joseph Freda's coming-of-age novel set in the summer of '69, "The Patience of Rivers." Most are viewed from the perspective of 18-year-old Nick Lauria, a high school graduate savoring his last summer at home before heading to the State University at Albany, which means that most also come with an appropriately vintage soundtrack. Steppenwolf, Marvin Gaye, Zager and Evans, Johnny Cash, Paul Mauriat (remember ''Love Is Blue''?), the Doors, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Fifth Dimension, and Strawberry Alarm Clock all appear... When that massive rock concert looms only a few miles away in what was farmer Max Yasgur's fields the concert we now call simply Woodstock they are joined by Santana, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix... and... and...
You get my drift. It's all a purple haze to me now.
Nick's family lives on the Delaware River, where they run an extensive campground for tourists. His parents started the business with his father's friend, Ted Miles, and now it has grown to the point where they also rent canoes and camper-trailers, and offer trail rides on a dozen horses. A variety of different elements are conspiring to force Nick to grow up. There are the letters he receives from his friend Felix, a young infantry soldier in Vietnam. There are the comely teenage Van Vooren sisters, who live nearby and have a tendency either to dive naked into the river when Nick and his best friend, Charlie Miles (Ted's son), paddle past in their canoes, or who view double-entendres involving the Hershey chocolate kiss as the height of sophisticated sexual banter. And there is the tension between his parents and Ted over how to run their business, and the increasing likelihood that among the investors Ted solicited to build the establishment is a developer with links to organized crime.
The tale, set largely in the months before Woodstock ("the Summer of the Perpetual Buzz," Nick has christened it) and then during the four-day festival itself, offers all the staples of most coming-of-age novels: Nick's parents' marriage is in trouble, he must navigate the myriad cliques that define the social worlds of most teenagers, and he (and, thus, the reader) spends massive amounts of time almost having sex before finally losing his virginity to a woman who is smart and beautiful and wise and, happily, more experienced than he.
As Freda demonstrated in his first novel, "Suburban Guerrillas," he has an admirable eye for idiosyncratic detail... that eye is apparent in this, his second effort, especially when he is describing Nick's mother's affection for the horses, or the nuts and bolts of running a family campground. ...in ''The Patience of Rivers'' he offers a... compendium of the sights and sounds of 1969...
"Nick swung the MG into the fishing access with gravel spraying and Iron Butterfly hitting the drum solo."
Or this: "Nick wasn't the only one to pick up the vibe between Eva and Charlie. Cecie Van Vooren stepped in to drape her arm around her sister's shoulder.
" `Don't listen to her, Charlie,' Cecie said. `From what I hear, those freak chicks at Columbia will sleep with anybody.' "
Or this: "The inside of Lucas's bus was painted with wacky cartoon characters: Wile E. Coyote chasing a joint-smoking Road Runner, Daffy Duck with a Beatles wig and electric guitar, Mickey and Minnie Mouse balling and grinning out at the audience. Mr. Natural, of course, truckin'."...
Nick is interesting and charismatic, and in the end he proves to be the kind of person in whom it's worth investing a little time.
Moreover, it was nice to get a sense of what I missed that fateful summer. I may not have been old enough to attend Woodstock, but at least I know now what kind of vibes the freak chicks were sending.
The Patience of Rivers
By Joseph Freda
Norton, 351 pp., $24.95
Chris Bohjalian is the author of eight novels, including ''The Buffalo Soldier,'' recently published in paperback.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.