- A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost by Frye Gaillard
Baby Boomers’ parents always remembered precisely where they were on December 7, 1941, when radio broadcasts announced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Boomers experienced their own “Day of Infamy” moment twenty-two years later, on November 22, 1963, with Walter Cronkite’s sorrowful CBS news flash: “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time” (xiv). Since I was in school, I missed Cronkite’s live report. I was a seventeen-year-old senior at W. P. Davidson High School in West Mobile. After the vice-principal broke the tragic news over the intercom in our English class, several students began sobbing loudly, and a fist fight erupted between two of my fellow seniors who held widely divergent views about the slain president. Such aberrant behavior normally would have earned immediate suspensions for the combatants, but not on that day. I seriously doubt that our fiery, red-headed English teacher, Helen Robbins, ever reported the incident. She was devastated by the heartbreak, anger, and sense of irreparable loss that engulfed us. For her students, however, this violent altercation forever haunted and delineated our memories of the day that John F. Kennedy died, along with our adolescent naivete and innocence.
For anyone who lived during the Sixties, Frye Gaillard’s A Hard Rain will evoke many visceral, emotional memories like those of that horrific day in late November 1963. “I hope to offer a sense of how it felt” (xi), the author writes about the decade early in his narrative. In this evocative, ambitious book, he clearly accomplishes this goal. A Hard Rain is a brilliant, definitive work in its breadth and depth alone and will attract a diverse universe of readers. Although this book lacks standard footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography, Gaillard’s “Notes and Acknowledgments” incisively reveal how he utilized primary and secondary sources. Stylistically, A Hard Rain’s crystalline prose is as invigorating as a hike in the cool, clean air of Marin County’s Muir Woods in the early autumn. Moreover, Gaillard’s felicitous synthesis [End Page 85] of previous scholarship, trenchant historical context, and his own poignant recollections combine to produce a book that assuredly will stand the test of time.
Discerning readers may question whether A Hard Rain is a memoir, narrative history, or a journalistic account of this tumultuous decade, or a creative blend of all three genres. Perhaps anticipating this debate, Gaillard asserts:
I have set out to capture in these pages—for those who lived it and wish to remember, and for those who didn’t but still want to know—the competing story arcs of tragedy and hope. There was in these years the sense of a steady unfolding of time, as if history were on a forced march, and the changes spread to every corner of our lives … For me this is history of a personal kind, the story of a decade in which I came of age, and in which my professional aspirations took shape … I knew as a journalist beginning my career in  I wanted to write about these things, and that the line between history and journalism was thin(xi).
Regardless of which genre seems most applicable, A Hard Rain is a panoramic, encyclopedic elegy of the Sixties—the Civil Rights struggle; the Vietnam War; the rise of movements for the rights of women, Native Americans, Latinos, and gays; the Pill and the sexual revolution; the counterculture; the first astronaut on the moon; and the generational schism that shattered and traumatized virtually every American family. The frenetic pace of the saga that unfolds in this book is reminiscent of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel’s pulsating 1989 rock ballad.
The Sixties, of course, featured its own musical accompaniment— an amalgamation of the blues, jazz, country, folk, and rock and a soaring constellation of artists—Elvis...