Wednesday, March 26, 2014

An Amazing Experience

If one event that happened decades before you were born could shape the person you would become, what would you do if you could go back and witness that event? Would you try to change it? Jordan Sonnenblick takes a boy whose life has been dictated by the events of the summer of 1969 and flings him from 2014 back to that summer and the festival that changed the face of our culture. Are You Experienced? is your opportunity to be transported back to the three days that defined the decades that followed.

Richie's parents were older than his friends' parents, and their age shows in more ways than one. He has never had anything in common with his father other than their love for guitar, but his dad even controls his love for music. In his parents militant anti-drug, anti-alcohol campaigns, they control his life like he is on lock-down. When he sneaks out to play at his girlfriend's protest to legalize marijuana, Richie doesn't expect his father to show up outside, but then again, Richie didn't even know what the protest was for! When he gets home, the chasm between him and his father is almost insurmountable... almost. When Richie's mother tells him the truth about his uncle Mike's death, Richie goes to speak to his father and instead finds the secret his father has been keeping: Jimi Hendrix's famous guitar from Woodstock... with a note for someone named Gabriel. Richie can't help himself. Despite his father's restrictions on electric guitars, he plugs it in. Just as he is about to rock out, his father finds him. Despite his father shouting at him to stop, Richie refuses to give in. He needs to play this miraculous piece of history he never knew was hidden in his basement. And then it all goes black. 

Richie wakes up, naked, in 1969 just in time to get hit by a car. Granted it wasn't going very fast, but it still hurt! He can't understand why he ended up on the side of the road, why he is naked, or where all of these pristine super old cars came from. That is, until a girl named Willow jumps out of the car to check on him. Through a few quick questions, it becomes clear that Willow is Mike's girlfriend, Richie's uncle Mike. And his little brother David, is Richie's father. Richie has heard that Woodstock was the weekend where it all went downhill for Mike and started the trend that led to his heroin overdose two months later, but somehow, he is going to live it right alongside them. Knowing he had to be careful about the future, Richie tells them his name is Gabriel, his middle name, and the strangest and most incredible weekend of his life that he wasn't even born for changed his life forever. 

Wow. Just Wow. I thought the premise of this story was hokey. I have to admit it. Time traveling to Woodstock? Ha! Wouldn't we all love that?! But it still seemed silly. And even the beginning of the book where one chapter was in Woodstock and it alternated with 2014 didn't thrill me, but from the moment Richie learned the truth about his uncle and played that legendary guitar, I was hooked. This story is so steeped in incredible history and music legends, I felt that I was transported to 1969 right next to Richie. Some stuff was a little silly (how the holding of lighters at concerts or crowd surfing started?), but on a whole, this was a really amazing story of how one weekend can ripple into the generations that follow it. I loved seeing how the consequences of Mike's weekend even affected Richie and his own music. It was a pretty powerful message. And that music? Let's not forget that music! Oh, I could just hear Janis and Jimi and Credence. It makes me think I was born a few decades too late, and the beauty is many of our students don't know who these greats are yet. So let's grab the Woodstock album and set the tone! There is no better way to understand such a festival than to swim in all its magnificent tunes!

The thing to know about this story is that it is Woodstock, with all its amazing adventures and all of its 1969 charm... including the things people would like to forget. There are certainly a lot of drugs being taken and accidents happening, and some skinny dipping, but you have to understand Sonnenblick wanted an authentic experience for his readers. If hundreds of thousands of young adults could go to Woodstock and spend an entire weekend peacefully listening to music and not rioting, hurting, and being unkind to one another, why can't today's young adults read about it? I find fault with the opinion that reading about drugs makes kids try drugs. I think that is a ridiculous hypothesis, but then again, I have always felt it was important not to censor our young adults' reading habits (or music or movies, for that matter). I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, and that includes some of those romance novels my mom and grandmother read, and you know what? I didn't turn out so bad! I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Trainspotting, and I didn't turn to a life of drug abuse. I watched R-Rated movies and it didn't make me violent. I think we have to trust our young adults to experience something like Woodstock through this amazing story, and experience it in its entirety! 

One part of this story that we can all agree is invaluable, though, is that Richie finally took a moment to understand why his father did the things he did. He always thought his father was overbearing and controlling and basically just there to throw a wrench in Richie's fun, but really, he just wanted to protect Richie. Mike was everything to David, and it took a trip to Woodstock for Richie to understand that was why David protected Richie so fiercely. I have read a lot of Sonnenblick novels, and I think this might be one of my favorites! I just can't get our how much the culture of 1969 washed over me, from the music to the idea of war and the draft. After reading this, I talked to my students about the draft and how they would feel if it was reinstated, and they were speechless. It is important to understand what the generation of my parents and their grandparents lived through. It was a summer to remember, even if you weren't there!

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