Writing the Past: Free Love, Thumbing Rides, and Other Incomprehensible Habits
People think of Laurie King as a writer of historical mysteries, especially the 1920s, a time of short skirts, fast cars, and that exciting new tech, radio.
Back to the Garden is set more recently than the 20s. It has two timelines: one now, the other flashing back to the 1970s. In 1972, a main character, Rob Gardener, comes home from Vietnam; in 1975, another character goes up to Rob’s Oregon commune to tell him of his grandfather’s death; and in 1979, the commune Rob started up in his inherited California home hosts a rock festival.
And while it’s hard to think of times that many of us actually remember as being “historical,” in fact, four decades ago make for a foreign country indeed.
It should be a simple task, for an author to describe a life she has lived through. Communes and long skirts, folk rock and organic gardens, VW vans and cannabis growing in hidden corners.
But even to someone who was there—and as the joke goes, does actually remember it—parts of the time are hard to believe.
Take “free love.” I was too busy (and yes, naïve) for a complicated social life, but I thought nothing of people who slept with anyone around. After all, the Pill was a thing, and herpes and AIDS didn’t hit the headlines until the 80s, so sharing bodily fluids was just natural, right?
But talk about naïve: during this era, in a time and place that two different serial murderers were at work, solitary women would walk up to a freeway on-ramp and put out their thumb.
I often did, hitching rides from the Greyhound bus stop after a weekend with my boyfriend, heading to the community college where I had classes and a job. Amazingly, I only had one problem, when a guy in a pickup drove off with my backpack in the back—and he later dropped it off at the bank whose checkbook he found in the pockets.
Now, the Internet would scream out the dangers, but then, I was blissfully unaware. I had no television, my radio was mostly tuned to classical, and I can’t remember anyone talking about the murders going on around us.
“The past is a foreign country,” as the writer says. I’ve been known to argue that the past can be more mirror than foreign land. But sometimes?
Sometimes the habits of the past can be utterly incomprehensible.