“Where did you get the idea for that novel?” I’ve heard authors answer that question in dozens of ways, including, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” More often than not, my answer would come close to that. How, in the first novel I wrote, did the image of a peacock rising from the prairie only to land again become the story of a girl’s attempt to escape her preacher-father? How did the image of a house become the Inheritors (www.judithkirscht.com)? But for Nowhere Else To Go (www.judithkirscht.com/books) I do know. Here it is.
In an earlier blog (Where’re You From), I talked about the way growing up in Chicago gave me the sense of being alive in history. My father contributed to this—our dinner table usually centered around the events of the day and for the five years of World War II, a map of the world hung on the dining room wall. Whatever the cause, I carry the strong sense of lives tossed and turned by their cultural and historical times. When my second daughter was born during the Cuban Blockade and her one year checkup was interrupted by the assassination of John Kennedy, I began to wonder if I’d somehow fated my children’s lives to be torn by history.
As the years went by, events did nothing to reassure me. I was always politically active—in the League of Women Voters, in the Democratic Party—and even ran political campaigns. Our daughters tagged along as my husband and I canvassed voters, stopping frequently to let the younger examine a beetle crawling along the walk, or answer the elder’s questions about the strange appearance of some resident.
My husband, urged on by a colleague, ran for and became a city councilman. The colleague, a fellow professor of public health, ran for mayor, and a neighbor joined them in a race for another council seat. They won. For the first time in years, Ann Arbor had a Democratic majority on the city council. Since caucuses were often held at our house, our children lived and breathed the exhilaration and frustration of political life.
But the Democratic reign was to be brief, swallowed in the rising campus movements that poured into the streets, the schools, and the homes, in the years following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Though our ideals coincided with the students’, the Democrats who held office were over thirty and therefore “the establishment”. Two Democrats, one my husband, lost their seats to students who characterized the Democratic councilmen as worthless patsies who had betrayed them. To be turned on by those you considered your friends is bitter, but became secondary to the disruption of the lives of our children.
We’d landed in Ann Arbor in a neighborhood that was a forgotten backwater—an accidental smattering of many races and classes that included the children of international student families. We decided this was the ideal place to buy a house and raise our children. And so it was, until its integrated elementary school drew new teachers filled with a passion for racial justice from the university. In second grade, children our daughter had grown up with gathered around her one recess and pelted her with erasers—for being white. In our older daughter’s junior high, tensions rose until one white boy showed up in school with a rifle.
Now children breathed the rising fear. Children who had grown up together became enemies as they sought the protection of “their own,” and of all of the disruption this was what I found the most horrifying and difficult to bear. Our children survived, though those years marked them; many others did not—especially older children drawn into the drug culture of the campus.
Our older daughter elected to attend the newborn alternative high school. We consented on the condition that both she and the school keep the learning contracts signed by students. Two years later—after frequent classes where no teachers showed up, and an after-show cast party where teachers took students to their home and got them drunk—we told her the school had failed its part of the deal and pulled her out. She ran away. She returned safely, but the week spent in the runaway network that dealt with hundreds such children in those days took me into the agony, fear, and chaos at the core of the upheaval.
I began to write. I had to tell the stories of the children, but to do that, I had to recreate the political and social conflicts of the town, for this was what the children brought to school. I had to recreate the voices—conservative and liberal, black and white, parents, teachers, children—that collided in the halls and fueled the rising fear that consumed their school days. This was the birth of Nowhere Else To Go (www.judithkirscht.com/books).
Because I was older, over thirty and not a part of the campus, this is not the typical view of the Sixties as told from one side or the other. It is mine, arising from the conflict and the effect on the lives of children who had grown up with the diversity trumpeted by the movements themselves. The town is fictional, as are the characters. Actual incidents don’t appear and the ones that do are fiction. What does come through, I hope, is the cause and effect of fear and polarization. I also hope that it echoes, for conservative and liberal alike, the current climate of cultural hostility. The Cold War zealotry of the Right that divided the country during my youth collided with the zealotry of the Left to tear apart my children’s lives and make us enemies of each other.
I hope the children, parents, and teachers of Nowhere Else To Go, by taking the reader back through those days, gives us a road back.