by Ted Manna
Cocoa Beach, Fla.
January 1, 2013
WHERE DID ALL THE FREE SPIRITS GO?
Cocoa Beach, Fla. -- I can't count the number of times over the last 40 years I've wondered what happened to the anti-Establishment movement of the '60's and '70's. Where did the war-protesting, peace-promoting free spirits go? What happened to those communes where people tried to create a new Utopia? Where were the voices of protest when we invaded, with "shock and awe," Saddam Hussein's Iraq?
Are they all now comfortable in a walled kingdom of denial and delusion?
Author Walter Brasch, in his new novel, "Before The First Snow," tries to answer those questions. With equal measures of wit and wonder, he weaves a beautifully stitched tapestry of those vibrant and turbulent times, seen through the eyes of a pragmatic monthly magazine editor, David Ascher, as he chronicles the life of quintessential flower child Apryl Greene.
In Apryl, who also goes by the name Rachel Greenberg, he creates a character who possesses an unmistakeable subversive power and an infectious, unfettered fearlessness. She has a moral disgust for the Establishment, an instinctive sympathy for the underdog and embodies an affirmation of what used to be called brotherhood.
Her story, told through a series of magazine-like articles, interspersed with present-day drama, shows that the lives of Americans are so intertwined that despite their differences and sometimes fierce enmity, the country and its people share a united destiny: unseen filaments tie together our lives and those of the characters.
Apryl absorbs facts easily, and doesn't suffer fools gladly or patiently. Raven-haired, she has deep blue eyes that one moment reflect "a playful delight," then quickly morph into "the gauge of struggle. Of determination...". She exudes a wistful sexiness that hooks hard-boiled Ascher.
"Maybe it was her devious look of naive innocence, that impish face that appeared it could never lie, yet concealed a volcanic rage that erupted without notice," David muses as he is "trying my damnest not to fall in love."
Tough, but vulnerable, Apryl draws Ascher into a "distinctly dark-grey ethics issue" - a personal involvement in his subject and her struggle to keep her dream of a "school for peace" alive in the face of a seemingly overwhelming campaign by government and industry to grab her land and build a nuclear waste dump.
It seems this is Mr. Brasch's poignant lesson. Without total commitment, a fully engaged passion, we are destined to become that which we rail against. "Maybe the story," David asserts, defending his interest in Apryl/Rachel, "is really about someone who in the face of great adversity still retains her passion for life and exploration while we all went Establishment."
At the same time, this is a rich, rousing tale of the classic struggle of right versus wrong, the power of a true passion and the triumph of reason over emotion. Even the most quickly sketched characters exude the warmth of real human beings, thanks to vivid vignettes of dialogue and observation.
Apryl's fight to keep her land in the face of government condemnation by eminent domain and industry's claims of jobs and revenue, confronts the same questions we ask now. Does job creation trump environmental damage? Like the recent debate about "fracking," is energy independence worth defiling the land?
The narrative frame that surounds the snapshots into Apryl's life complicates but does not undermine them. As a young photojournalist for several counterculture publications on assignment covering the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, she ends up in critical condition after being beaten by police who try to rip off the leather and brass peace symbol she wears around her neck.
It is not until much later in the novel we learn that it belonged to her husband, a young black man killed in Vietnam. So understated by Mr. Brasch, the description of their love and courtship, of the casket shipped back to the states, and the subsequent death by cancer of the daughter he never knew truly evokes the emotions and racial tension of that time.
I can sincerely admit to choking back a sob and possibly wiping a tear at times, blindsided by "a lot of facts, just lying there, quietly embedded," as David explains his (and Mr. Brasch's) narrative style." "A word. A phrase. a sentence or two. Innocuous but powerful. Waiting. Just waiting to explode."
But it is the masterful description of Apryl's ultimate confrontation with the Marshfield County, Pa., Board of Commissioners, the entity overseeing her land's condemnation, that will have you jumping and cheering for every citizen who dares to buck the system.
In a scene that rivals any courtroom drama devised by John Grisham or Michael Connelly, Mr. Brasch puts you right into a town hall-type forum complete with county employees, media and local residents. You want to applaud the funky figure of Apryl in her "imitation doeskin dress", "hemp rope belt" and "her carefully placed leather and brass peace symbol," as she skillfully and guilelessly maneuvers her way through the morass of laws and procedures.
On hand are all the usual suspects: the kindly chairman, the Establishment commissioner, the jeering crowd, the surprise witnesses and the jarring testimony. It is to Mr. Brasch's credit that these characters are not caricatures but real people, our own neighbors and friends.
This timely, powerful novel embraces the divisions plaguing a now recession-weary nation and offers real sustenance as it gently accentuates the spirit of hope and goodwill - the real message of the '60's movement.
Rich in precise historical and conceptual detail, it salvages from the margins of recent history the experience of the true flower children. Peering into the past is a favorite endeavor of baby boomers. We are confronting the same questions now that we did then, but instead of becoming mere background noise, they nudge us in an almost somnolent way into David and Apryl's story.
Before the first snow, Apryl's School for Peace will open, and with it our understanding that, unlike David, who wants to "observe everything," we have to be more like Apryl, and "ride everything."
"We have "to understand just what happened to my generation of activists, why many of us deserted our dreams, and why Apryl Greene didn"t," thinks David, so we will "know there is a hope for peace and a concern for life in a world that may be racing to its own destruction in wars we can never imagine."