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Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite
The 1960s, the era of sex, drug and rock ‘n roll, was a time of civil unrest, endless protests, unwanted wars, drug-induced ‘flower’ power, assassination, and, somewhat unexpected in such an era, putting a man on the moon. When the Rayson family packed up their house and moved from staid, predictable Washington, D.C. across the country to the footloose and fancy-free Californian west coast, little did they know the changes that would quite literally rock their little world. Ten-year-old Alice is the youngest; her story is outlined first. With an older brother and a father who loves baseball, she’s also a fan, a little bit of a tomboy. Settling into her new home and school in Berkeley, Alice and the others soak up the climate and the hippie paradise atmosphere. Alice, who never thought twice about befriending a black girl in Washington, is now tagged as ‘Whitey’, and struggles to come to terms with a new norm where differences are categorical. So many changes. As the family as a whole struggles to come to terms, Alice, as the youngest, provides a child’s perspective of the strange and bizarre situations all around her, from a shattering sense of mounting tension within the home to the divisive racism in her school and the threats against her personal well-being and sense of place.
Sarah Relyea’s novel, Playground Zero, is a troubling look back in time to a difficult era, the 1960s. Taking one family’s perspective and how the events of the era affect each member, the author creates a mosaic of four stories (one for each member of the Rayson family), each story telling one particular, very personal point of view. Like the writing of Jodi Picoult, Sarah Relyea has the ability to build a particular drama into a compelling plot, unveiled through multiple points of view. Each character’s point of view is identified with the character’s name and the plot continues to evolve from one perspective to another. While Alice clamors for her own identity in a world upturned, her mother seeks solace in books that cleverly add to the complexity of the era, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Through music, literature, and actual events, the author creates a clear picture of the 1960s, especially the tumultuous events and the free-love flower power that swept the west coast in particular. This is a powerful, historical drama. Well constructed.