During recent visits, I have often found the city of Berkeley to be a garden on a hill, lush in its vegetation and breathtaking in its panoramas. In the stunning hill neighborhoods, redwoods soar from a neighbor’s yard as the eye feasts on tangled beach roses. Meanwhile, west beyond the flatlands and the bay, the blinding evening sun drops through the Golden Gate. A glass of wine in such a place is unlike a glass of wine anywhere else. The senses revel and rebel, and so do we.
When I wrote Playground Zero, a coming-of-age novel set in Berkeley during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, I wanted to convey something of the city’s splendor, along with the anarchy of those years. I wanted a backdrop that would contrast with the story of Alice Rayson, a girl growing up under fraying social norms, as large numbers of people sought to jettison the past. The lush landscape would serve to counterbalance unsettling aspects of Alice’s story, offsetting them—not only for the reader, but also for myself during the long process of producing a novel. More ambiguously, I hoped to shine the city’s light on some of the forgotten corners of those countercultural years. After all, contrast creates meaning.
Title: Playground Zero Author: Sarah Relyea Genre: Historical Fiction My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sarah Relyea has penned a coming of age story set in one of the United States coming of age periods during the late 1960s. The Raysons family are all children of their time, and the third person alternating point-of-view lets us see the world they live in through their eyes and experience their day-to-day–Tom Rayson is not a likable man.
The book follows the family as they cross the country from the East Coast to the West Coast to establish new lives in Berkley, CA, during the bussing and integration of black students. Sarah Relyea has a great atmosphere for her story; there are many times she painted the events happening with her words.
In today’s climate, reading books of this nature might shed some light on social dynamics between races — although there are times I felt a little like there was an unconscious bias for the great work the Raysons were doing regardless of what they did. And Tom is thoroughly unlikeable.
I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary advance copy of this book.
Title: Playground Zero Author: Sarah Relyea Genre: Fiction, Historical, Coming of Age Release Date: 09 June 2020
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.
About Sarah Relyea:
Sarah Relyea is the author of “Playground Zero,” a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. Sarah left the Berkeley counterculture at age thirteen and processed its effects as a teenager in suburban Los Angeles. She would soon swap California’s psychedelic scene to study English literature at Harvard.
Sarah has long addressed questions of identity in her writing, including in her book of literary criticism, “Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin.”
With her PhD in English and American literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY, Sarah has taught American literature and writing at universities in New York and Taiwan. She remains bicoastal, living in Brooklyn and spending time on the Left Coast.