Often, after the new year's literary awards are announced, a book that was passed over for honors starts to get the attention it has deserved all along. Hopefully, this year that book will be The Girl I Left Behind, a splendid memoir by Judith Nies that combines personal and period history (largely the 1960s and early '70s) as effectively and compellingly as any similar book I can think of.
Nies, an educator, historian and writer now living in Cambridge, Mass., uses her own upbringing and quick education in the realities of sexism to give a deep, personal look at how the 1960s' changes affected everyday life, particularly for women.
Nies describes being a smart, working class girl getting used to life in high-dollar prep schools, and then going on to work for a national women's peace group. During the Vietnam War protests, Nies and her husband lived and worked in D.C., he as a Treasury Department economist, and she as a speechwriter and chief staffer for a group of antiwar congressmen. Then her husband finds out that her pre-Congress peace activities are being investigated by the FBI, and her life changes. Soon, she begins to re-examine her roles as low-paid government employee and compliant wife.
Her personal story of awakening is similar to those of tens of thousands of women who essentially reinvented themselves during the Women's Liberation movement of the 1970s, while navigating the ever-changing social and political landscapes of America. Nies tells the story very well in a compelling style that's straightforward but elegant, and makes the point that great social changes are usually the result of dedicated activism and organization rather than simply sweeping over the land as part of some mysterious "cultural tide."
Considering that the '60s have been written about ad infinitum, if not ad nauseam, it's surprising how few insights have been produced in print regarding the personal reasons why the era's seismic social and cultural changes had to happen. Nies provides those insights, and nails what it felt like, in terms of inner life, to go through those times with your eyes open.