Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine. It’s one thing to read about a long ago heroine struggling to set things right in a setting foreign to my own experiences. It’s quite another to personally relate to having lived in the area where the story takes place in a particularly memorable period in recent history: my generation’s role in the student protest against the Viet Nam war during the turbulent 1960s.
Elise Frances Miller’s novel In a Time to Cast Away Stones begins in the fall of 1968 with the San Francisco Bay Area students’ antiwar movement. Her riveting story concludes a few months later in Paris during the “Events of May,” the only student-worker-bourgeois alliance and revolution that a Western capitalist democracy has ever experienced.
Miller’s protagonist Janet Magill begins her stint at UC Berkeley as a shy freshman who is away from her posh Beverly Hills home for the first time. She is struggling to find her place in a fast-paced academic world inhabited by throngs of young men and women who don’t seem interested in anything she might have to say — if she could find her voice to express a socially relevant opinion, of which she comes to realize she lacks. Janet soon embarks on a path that will change her life and challenge her philosophical ideals when she finds herself on foreign soil and the front lines of a modern day French revolution.
In contrast, Janet’s boyfriend Aaron Becker is a science major ready to graduate who is not at all sure of his future. He shares Janet’s worry when her older brother is shipped off to Viet Nam, yet he’s confused by her newfound sense of purpose that revolves around UC Berkeley’s student protest against the war. Aaron is concerned over her drastic, seemingly overnight switch from a naïve straight-laced girl to campus radical involved with a political fringe group he wants nothing to do with. Janet’s conservative parents are appalled.
Neither Janet nor Aaron imagined they would end up in the fabled City of Light during the historic May Revolution that involved over ten thousand French citizens. Janet had never pictured herself falling for a dashing Czech dissident. The unconditional gift Aaron gave to Janet and his Eastern European rival ultimately led to his own clear path to follow. Elise Frances Miller’s impartial approach to the complicated subject matter of the Viet Nam war is commendable: she presents multiple sides of the story that accurately portray this conflicted, highly volatile era of American and European history. She brings to life a young woman searching for meaning and the two men who love her, the passionate zeal of student and worker protesters here and abroad as well as their friends who oppose the protests, and varying political and social opinions of adults who observe from the sidelines.
Certain aspects of Miller’s character Janet Mcgill remind me of my youth: a politically uninformed high school senior who in the spring of 1968 was focused on finding the perfect dress for prom and burning a detested parochial uniform at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on graduation day. Like Janet, my awareness expanded when friends were drafted into a war we didn’t understand and families were torn apart by loss and opposing beliefs.
A Time to Cast Away Stones is not just a story for the people who lived through that era. In fact, this historically vital novel should be included on high school and college course lists. It will prove invaluable for anyone who wants to learn from the past to protect the future.