A New Yorker faces challenges at a Midwestern college as the turmoil of the 1960s erupts in this debut memoir.
Vahl arrived at Indiana University in the autumn of 1963 without a family escort or any sense of what the future held. An adventurous young white student from a Jewish background, she settled on Indiana because she’d met a few Midwesterners and thought she liked them. In Bloomington, though, the author was stunned to discover not only pointed anti-Semitism, but sexism, creationism, and virulent racism as well. Nearly as soon as she arrived, her black roommate, Katherine Gates, explained that prior to this semester, the black students had been segregated from the others, forced to live in Quonset huts. As Vahl learned quickly thereafter, segments of the school’s student body were no less viciously racist than the administration: A black basketball player who dated her new white friend Shennandoah Waters was castrated and killed—and left in a ditch—the previous year. In the coming months, the author experienced not merely the usual stuff of college life (boys, bands, bad cafeteria food), but also Bibles “raised aloft like banners” at a lecture on evolution and, to compound the shock of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the reaction of her classmates. They threw a victory party, exclaiming: “It’s not just incredible—it’s the best day of our lives!” Vahl was horrified by many events in southern Indiana, but she enjoyed the sweet moments when she found them: dates with a sexy folk musician; the awakening of her love for making art; and delightful card games with her many black friends. The author has a good ear for dialogue and a nice sense of pacing. After a surprisingly slow start, this thoughtful chronicle of a single school year picks up momentum and rolls smoothly through the seasons. Though metaphors occasionally mix with abandon in these pages (“Here I was, cast up like so much human flotsam on the distant shores of this dim Gothic vault of a room, where unfamiliar accents echoed like sirens’ songs in my ears”), Vahl writes clearly and engagingly. Readers interested in Midwestern history, American race relations, and stories of culture shock will find the book both stimulating and convincing.
This well-paced narrative absorbingly depicts a handful of lives in Indiana in a pivotal year.