There's the threatening cliché that if we don't learn from our past we're doomed to repeat it. But sometimes you have to wonder if the past is really all that bad, especially when the past is as idyllic as the portrait author Ellen Everman paints in her nostalgic novel Pink Dice.
This colorful look at baby boomers and Cincinnati in the 1950s follows adolescent narrator Patti Rae as she comes of age during a summer in her small, woodsy home in Northern Kentucky.
"I wanted my protagonist to be young enough to tell how things really were without pronouncing judgment," says Everman, who based Patti Rae off her own experiences growing up in Fairview, Ky. "I wanted to set it during that time in her life where she questions a lot. I wanted it to be magical and golden, but I also wanted there to be complexities and confusion."
Patti Rae's life is forever changed when her cousin Mary Lou, a blossoming redheaded femme fatale, comes to stay with her and her family. They adventure across the Ohio River into the then-booming metropolis of Cincinnati and through the still-wild woods of her hometown, stopping along the way to find some perverts, murderers, since-destroyed architectural beauty, boys and a new idea of what it means to grow up.
Everman says she wanted to write the book for four reasons: "To illustrate what a true trickle-down economy was like; to show what (a) sweet, slow time the baby boomers had in the '50s; to celebrate the color and unique culture that was created by the first generation of adolescents to be called 'teenagers;' and to tell a story about the '50s and how it led up to the cultural and sexual revolution of the '60s."
Other than Patti Rae, Everman's three main characters — Mary Lou, Jake and Francis — are a mishmash of stereotypes and people she knew growing up but also the embodiment of the issues of an era.
Buxom Mary Lou, with internal engines humming, foreshadows the coming of the sexual revolution.
Jake, a Fonzie-esque bad-boy greaser, lightly hints at the prejudices and hypocrisies of the time. And Francis, a woodsman warranting a physical description similar to that of Walt Whitman, represents the return to the earth and the coming peace and love movement of the '60s.
"We all had a wonderful childhood in those days, but the further your history recedes in the past the more magical it becomes," Everman says. "I didn't want to be too realistic about this. I was writing for the baby boomers. I didn't want to bring in how harsh it was. It was for those people who want to remember the time. Those who say, 'Oh you just brought back the most wonderful memories, it's just how I remember it.' Really it's just the way they want to remember it."
By ignoring social injustices like the Jim Crow laws, Everman lovingly re-creates the happiest time in America, highlighting the booming post-World War II economy, an exploding middle class and an entire generation of adolescents who had the freedom to make choices for themselves.
"Before the war there was the Depression," she says. "After the war, the boys came flooding back into the States. Everyone felt very rich. We all had a pressure cooker, a car and a television. Everyone was in the same boat."
Society moved from agrarian to market-driven. Women such as Patti Rae's mother became housewives instead of farmers. They had the time and disposable income to spend an entire day shopping and to dress themselves and their children in fashionable clothing.
Pink Dice describes downtown Cincinnati as the glimmering City of Oz and Fourth Street as its cultural epicenter. By pairing vibrant descriptions of historic local architecture, like the Netherland Plaza Hotel, with vivid portraits of glamorous shopping women, Everman makes you long for a time when quality and beauty were important.
"Everybody looked like they just walked out of Vogue," she says. "Purses, hats and gloves matched. Our mothers would dress us up in crinolines and little patent leather shoes. It was a different era. There were no warm-up suits."
Everman even devotes an entire chapter to the since-destroyed RKO Albee theater, with its red-carpeted stairs, crystal chandeliers and vaudeville sensibilities saying, "How foolish we are when we tear down historic buildings with such incredible beauty."
But in the end all of this nostalgia has a lesson.
"I want (readers) to realize that we have gotten away from the things in life that mean the most, and that's family and love," she says. "I want them to see that we almost had it perfect in the '50s. I want people to understand we can live in peace and be closer to the earth.
"We need to give up some of the things that we have and come back to some of the things that are important. My hope is that this generation will not take their history so lightly."
ELLEN EVERMAN signs and discusses Pink Dice at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.