Here was a teenage girl destined to emerge as a lightning rod for New York's alternative theater movement, writing to a young country singer who, arguably, would become America's most reconizable cultural icon - and writing throughout the pivotal year that marked the birth of rock and roll.
It sounds, I must admit, more than a little goofy. In 1955, with a cultural revolution in the offing for American youth, a smart-but-shy schoolgirl named Achsa McEachern strikes up a impromptu epistolary friendship with... Elvis Presley. But from such unpromising (to me, at least) material, Diane Thomas, in The Year the Music Changed (2005), somehow crafts a thoroughly charming, bittersweet joy of a novel, one that weaves broader social changes through the lives of its characters with a bold but light touch.
We open with a simple (and perhaps overly familiar) framing device, the narration of a present-day scholar who has tracked down both sides of the correspondance. (Or indeed before this, with an epigraph supposedly taken from one the plays written by Achsa in later life). The letters are heralded as an exciting new discovery, one that (as the opening quotation indicates) will shed fresh light on the era, and provide a portrait of two artists as young people. Thomas, through her scholar, briskly redirects our suspension of disbelief from the appropriation of Elvis Presley to the form itself, and by extension to all the self-narration therein - and builds a little narrative tension along the way:
Of all the documents, only one emerged as problematic. Written by Mr. Presley, it was destroyed, as described by Achsa McEachern, and then recreated by her from memory. How accurate was her recreation? For that I have no answer - only my sincere belief that, considering her stated familiarity with the original, her extreme attachment to it, and the emotionally charged circumstances surrounding its destruction, she had powerful motivation to reproduce it word for word, and did so.
Thereafter, the story is told wholly through their letters. We begin with Achsa, writing on a whim after hearing Elvis on the radio:
Atlanta, Georgia, Wednesday, February 2, 1955
Dear Mr. Presley:
I don't know who you are, and I'm not a person who writes fan letters, but I though I ought to tell you they're playing your record, "That's All Right, Mama," on the wrong radio station. I just heard it, and it really knocked me out. The trouble is, I heard it on a hillbilly station. Nobody listens to hillbilly music, and I don't know why you think you're a hillbilly singer. You're not. You're singing that new music they call "rock and roll". Or "rhythm and blues" if you're a Negro - I can't tell from your voice. I can't tell if you're young or old, either. But I can tell one big thing. I know exactly what you feel with every word. I've never heard anybody sing like that.
So many of the story's touchstones are right here in the very first letter: Achsa, disarmingly forthright, at least on the page; Elvis, never in control of the way he is presented to the world; the sense of intense, personal connection between musician and listener, forged by radio airplay (and gruelling touring schedules); the social upheavals of the later 1950s, particularly the rise of teen culture and the continuing oppression of people of colour; and the influence of black culture on white America, and the tensions between those who ignored (or opposed) and those who engaged.
The treatment of Presley (of whom I knew little before I read this) inspires much sympathy. He appears as a shy, uneducated young man who comes alive onstage, but whose talent far outstrips his ability to manage its consequences. With each passing month, he becomes more out of his depth; when he begs Achsa to help him improve his grammar through their letters, so that he can communicate more effectively, it is clear that what he really wants is a way to exert some control over how others see him. He loves music, but finds his success both exhilarating and terrifying. Mobbed after one performance, he writes to Achsa of his panic:
That night I couldn't hardly sleep at all. Just lay awake wondering, what if them girls had got all my clothes tore off and there weren't nothing to tear apart but me?
This fame, grounded as it is in a particular sound and image, is also increasingly confining to him. On two occasions he expresses a wish for escape. The first is a moving failure: a live show where, to his audience's vocal dismay, he eschews his hits and sings gospel music instead, an experience he finds transcendent but which also teaches him a hard lesson in the need to meet expectations. Although we do not see it play out, the second - inspired by James Dean and the new generation of young Method actors - is of course equally doomed:
I'm a different kind of singer. I'm going to be a different kind of actor, too. I'm not going to do
noany singing in my movies neithereither. I already told Colonel. [...] My inside voice is telling me I'm meant to be a serious actor, and that's what I aim to do.
As regular readers of the blog will know, I'm sceptical about the desirability of using real people as fictional characters. Much as I enjoyed it, Music did not change my mind on the fundamentals of the issue, though Thomas evidently tried very hard to avoid doing violence to at least the external facts; as she says in her author's note, "For a long time I wanted to see how close I could fit fiction up against reality without distorting what was real." Still, there is an undoubted irony in a novel that explores how a young man copes when fame turns him into public property, by... treating him as public property.
In any case, the centre of the story is brave, brilliant Achsa, during a year that is as pivotal for her own life as it is for American society. Like Elvis, she is a painfully shy girl who is transformed by her chosen medium - in her case, writing. Precociously intelligent, Achsa has been advanced several grades at school, a leap that has cost her friends her own age and thrust her into social situations for which she isn't ready. She also has a harelip, something that was impressed upon her as a disability from a young age:
[Daddy] cupped my chin and rubbed his thumb lightly across my upper lip. "I'm afraid you'll never have an easy life," he said.
"Why, Daddy?" I asked.
He paused for what seemed like an eternity to a four-year-old, then finally replied, "Because you don't look like your mother."
It is a disadvantage for the woman she will become, in a society that judges women first and foremost on their appearance (as Achsa's mother later notes, instructing her daughter in makeup application, "'A woman puts on her face every morning [...] It's something she gives to the world. And what the world expects from her.'"). But it is no less a curse for a child in school, and the resultant bullying cripples Achsa's confidence:
The kids in grammar school - the not-nice ones - used to call me "Nigger Lip" on the playground. [...]
That's why I never sent a picture. Or thanked you for yours. I figured if I ignored any mention of pictures maybe you'd forget, and just this once the way I look wouldn't matter. It was wrong, and I have no excuse. Except every time one of your letters came, for a little while I knew how being pretty felt.
(I confess, this choked me up; not the only place in the novel, either)
Still, Achsa never rails against (what she perceives to be) the fact of her lack of beauty. Partly this is resignation; partly it is because she learns, through the cruel example of her mother's life, just how beauty can be a trap, and used against a woman; ultimately, though, it is because she finds a mode of self-expression and a creative outlet to which her appearance is irrelevant. Her words make her beautiful.
Over the year in which they write to each other, a sweet, exuberant, mutual crush develops between Achsa and Elvis. Here is Elvis, for example (generally the more effusive of the two):
I even got the date. December 2. I'm doing a show at someplace called the Sports Arena, and I'm
askingbegging you to please, please, please, please be there. I really, really, really want to see you!!
Prior to this, Achsa attends one of Elvis' performances - quite unplanned, and without introducing herself to him (the pair do not meet until the very end, and then only for an evening). In a subsequent letter, she describes the experience to him. Initially, she is nonplussed by the reaction of the other girls in the crowd ("Screaming, crying, tearing their hair, I never saw the like of it"), but soon catches the mood herself:
You stared at me a very long time without smiling, as if you wanted to pour all your music into me. And every sound you ever heard and loved.
As I stared back, a warmth began to spread inside me in slow, shuddering waves. I tried to stop it, clenched my fists so hard my fingernails left bloody quarter-moon prints in my palms, but it only grew stronger. A tear slid down my cheek, then another.
I cannot describe what happened next, except to say that I felt so much I became frightened.
For Achsa, the year of writing to her famous penpal is a deeply liberating experience. It gives her someone to turn to as her home life collapses before her eyes; and, in a quieter but more significant way, it is that teenage rite-of-passage, the fostering of an inner life and a private self, selectively revealed to, or hidden from, others. By the end of this year, she is travelling hundreds of miles, alone, to confront her parents' secrets and choose what college she will attend.
(Stop here if you'd rather not know the end...)
And then comes my Thomas' perfect narrative decision. Having grown into an adult self-awareness and self-sufficiency, it is Achsa who chooses - with sorrow, and courage, and remarkable maturity - to end things between them.
And finally I cried for me. Because my life is sad and beautiful and it has only just begun.
(In the interests of full disclosure: on premise alone, I really would never have tried this book ("...Elvis?"); only the enthusiastic urging of its editor convinced me to buy it. And I'm so glad I did. Seriously, read it!)