historical fiction, paperback & ebook, 416 pages, $16.95 & $9.95.
A twelve-year-old girl navigates her fractured family’s move from D.C. to Berkeley in 1968.
An eerily compelling déjà vu of the free, wild and jeopardy-ridden kid scene in late-1960s Berkeley. Uncanny and powerful.
-Charles Degelman, Editor, Harvard Square Editions
Like a trip through the Looking Glass, Sarah Relyea's engrossing debut novel takes you by the hand back to the sixties, where social rules were being challenged and political upheaval was the norm. Relyea tells the absorbing story of twelve-year-old Alice and her family through a series of narrators as they each experience the kaleidoscope streets of Berkeley. But she saves her most lyrical and beautiful language for the disintegration Alice sees and the heartbreak she experiences.
Playground Zero by Sarah Relyea
1968. It’s the season of siren songs and loosened bonds—as well as war, campaign slogans, and assassination. When the Rayson 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.
Excerpt from Part I: A Wandering Moon
Coming from the yard, where a willow swayed and the fence hung heavy with damp honeysuckle, a long-legged girl appeared in the doorway. Willow and honeysuckle, grass and stone bench: soon gone. She would remember them, of course, how she and a neighbor girl had overpowered the bench under the willow one school-day afternoon. They’d never imagined they could, and so they’d pushed and pushed, and then, in one impossible moment—chaos! Though alarmed by the heavy thud, she’d been enjoying the success when her mother appeared. Running for the gate, the other girl snagged a honeysuckle frond and then was gone, leaving a fragrance over Alice and her mother, willow and dismembered bench.
She would remember the Mall and the monuments and the spring cherry blossoms from Japan.
She’d been on peace marches. Ten and nearly grown, soon she’d be by the dock of the bay, California dreaming.
She would remember summer lightning bugs—how she’d chased them with her brother; how fugitive they were!
Weaving a honeysuckle frond around her head, Alice came through the door. Glancing up, she could feel the empty room eyeing her: long bangs held in place by the frond, pouting mouth and somber, almond-shaped eyes, like her mother’s—no changes there. Mornings, she resembled her mother; by noon, her brother. The long arms and legs were slender and hers alone.
She would remember the honeysuckle frond and the empty room on moving day.
The movers had come and gone. She should be folding her sleeping bag. Dragging the heavy bag, Alice passed through an abandoned mesh of hanging beads; as she cleared the beads, they clacked in a rush of swaying rhythm. The sound always made her imagine a caboose passing by.
The unseen caboose rounded a bend and was gone. Under her palm the glossy door frame was cool, though the day was already muggy, June in Washington.
They were bound for a new land. She must go knowing nothing of the place, whether good or bad.
Her parents had gone there scouting the land. They’d gone farther than the spy who crossed through Indian country during the Revolution—she’d read about him in her brother’s book—and brought back encouraging news of a place where the weather was always warm, and the forests wild with vegetation. Her mother spoke of the new house as a castle in the shadow of the Berkeley hills—so large, so gloomy with heavy redwood beams in the local manner. Then in a moment of fancy, her mother had snapped up a couple of regal chairs as furnishings; she’d bought them and, eyes aglow from the buying spree, brought them home in the car on her own, no asking Tom. They were Shakespearean props for A Midsummer Night’s Dream or maybe Macbeth, her mother had laughed, as she arranged the blood-red thrones by the fireplace, where Alice and her brother were playing an idle game of King and Queen on them when the movers came.
Her mother was calling from the yard. The moment had come. Gathering up the sleeping bag, Alice passed through the front doorway, seeing once more the layers of peeling paint, then through crocuses to the car, where her family paused under a humid sky.
Her father approached holding a map, colored as though of the Holy Land, a heavy forefinger marking the route. They would soon be crossing dangerous lands that had lured rough men and runaways, cowboys and covered wagons, through wild grasses, deep waters, and oak-maple jungle to lonely deaths. She would reap the reward: roads and jukebox restaurants, suspension bridges and Grand Canyon overlooks, a new ocean, sandy beaches. They would journey; they would be happy.
Folding the map, her father headed for the house.
He was closing up the house when a baby-blue Rambler rounded the corner. Alice had wondered if they would really come: but Kathy’s mother had promised, and here they were. Kathy jumped down from the passenger seat, her eyes red. Oh, she’d been crying! They could be close, as they had been for nearly a year, if only the Raysons were staying. The anger suddenly gone, the quarrels forgotten, they approached each other by the curb as Kathy’s mother leaned from the Rambler.
“Marian,” she purred in a deep, playful growl, waving over Alice’s mother. “Come here. I have something to tell you.”
The mothers were close, and they’d become closer as Kathy’s father—a defenseless man, an oyster in need of a shell—was leaving. Though Kathy adored him, she bragged one day how her mother had hurled the frying pan. There were other confessions on the way home from school; and once Kathy added, in seeming condemnation, “Your parents never argue, do they.” She’d come to the Raysons’ house often enough to know. “They’re repressed,” she murmured, rubbing it in. Even so, Kathy was fun and loyal, or had been before her father made plans to go. That was when she suddenly found something else to do.
Now those problems were gone, and for a moment they were together. Alice was fumbling for words.
The mothers were done.
“Kathy, hurry up!”
“Well, goodbye. See ya.” Alice found the same phrase as always.
Kathy fought back her tears. “See ya.”
Soon the cars headed off together along the avenue. Then Kathy’s Rambler rounded a corner and the parade was over. The Raysons’ old Chevy Delray sped down the avenue, a hand waving from the rear window.
“Off we go,” Marian summed up, turning and offering the children an encouraging smile below her sunglasses. Blonde and casual, she wore a sleeveless paisley dress and sandals; her shoulders were smooth and pale, her features pleasingly angular. Tom had sandy hair, heavy shoulders and a square jaw; he too wore sunglasses.
“Well, I’m sorry to go. It’s been a good home,” Marian sighed, wiping her cheek. Then she added, “Can we go by the Lincoln Memorial, Tom?”
“Along the Mall?”
“Yes, we should see the Poor People’s Campaign before we go. Can we get through?”
“Barbara says we should go.” Barbara was Kathy’s mother, a geyser of news. Alice had been stung to learn of the move from Kathy, who’d heard from her mother and come up on the playground, chummy and sorry she’d been mean. As usual, the Raysons had preferred to keep the plans among grown-ups. They’d informed the children only when there was no longer anything to conceal, or much chance to complain. Now there would be summer in Berkeley, a place near San Francisco; she would need new pals.
Curt glanced over at her. Though he was two years older and a boy, they’d played together before Kathy, who was always arguing with boys.
“How come her mother bought that Rambler?” he murmured in a confiding tone, though the eyes were teasing.
No one responded.
“I mean, why choose a lousy car?”
Curt remembered car models and design features, baseball games and earned run averages; he always had something to do. But why should she care about such things? The world of cars and sports and grown-up concealment was passing, and something new was beginning.
Her mother glanced back. “No squabbling,” she commanded. “We’re going to see the civil-rights people. No one seems to remember the message anymore, but we can honor King’s memory by keeping peace among ourselves.” Then she paused and murmured, “Tom, no going down where the trouble was.”
Her mother was referring to the shopping corridor along 14th Street, where they’d always gone for shoes. Now the shops were closed; they’d been smashed and looted in days of outrage after the killing of King. Only her father had seen the damage as he passed through every day on the way to work and back. Surrounded by houses and lawns, the others had been far enough away for the mayhem to seem unreal.
Curt leaned forward. “The Senators are playing Oakland at two o’clock. Frank Howard’s up against Catfish Hunter. Can we hear the game?” As everyone knew, Howard was Washington’s home-run hero, while Hunter was the up-and-coming Oakland player who’d thrown a perfect game back in May.
Tom glanced back at Alice. “And you?” he asked blandly. “Any requests?”
She made no response.
“What’s that song of yours?” her father pursued. He was referring to the song he’d found her blaring in the basement playroom a few days before. The song was new to her, part of the Top 40 countdown. The Top 40 was also new to her, something other than baseball.
Tom reached forward and sound flooded the Chevy: “White Rabbit” in full swing.
He glanced at her in the mirror. “Loud enough?”
Through the window she was enjoying the tangled trees of Rock Creek Park. They often passed the park, because it was on the way downtown. The song pulsed through a crescendo and ended. Tom turned off the radio.
“Well,” she heard her mother saying, “we’ve chosen a good moment to go to San Francisco.”
Soon they were passing Adams Morgan and P Street, where they’d gone for dinner on Saturdays. Kathy’s mother had recommended the restaurant, Luigi’s. The Washington Monument could be seen ahead, far away yet always there, as though a new heavenly body had been hung in the sky. The Chevy came through a tunnel and emerged among apartment blocks and government buildings. The facades were shadowless, since the day was cloudy. As the Chevy paused for the red light by St. John’s Church, she saw the rearing horse and rider of Lafayette Square. A dampened White House lay beyond; the monument, larger now and lower, reminded her of a chimney capping the Johnsons’ house—soon someone else’s.
She would remember the church on Easter Sunday, though they’d gone just once.
The Chevy rounded Lafayette Square and passed the White House and the Ellipse. Soon they were under the monument. Looming up and up, the thing could be seen mingled with cloud—a planet for the Raysons’ wandering moon.
The Chevy neared the monument and broke away, heading west along Independence Avenue. Peering through the trees of Ash Woods, they saw a shantytown fanning out in rows. Then the Poor People’s Campaign was hidden by a leafy camouflage.
The marble figure in the Lincoln Memorial reposed in shadow as the Chevy passed the site’s southern end. Alice had seen the statue of Lincoln up close; one summer evening, her mother and Barbara had taken the girls there after a peace rally under the Washington Monument.
She would remember the dead man’s presence. The peace marches had been solemn, if informal—government on the grass. Now a shantytown had sprung up in the muddy park, as monuments glimmered under a cloudy noon.
The manuscript of this novel was semi-finalist for the Black Lawrence Press 2018 Big Moose Prize.