Author Patricia Vaccarino may split her time now between Seattle and the Oregon Coast, but she drew on her own experiences growing up in New York to create this multifaceted coming-of-age novel, “YONKERS Yonkers!”
So let’s go back in time to 1969, when Yonkers was a tough, working-class city, rife with racial tensions, whispered-about mob associations and a hippie culture that had overrun the local gem of a park in order to turn on, tune in and drop out.
Twelve-year-old Concetta Mary Bernadette Colangelo — she goes by the nickname Cookie — is the elder daughter in a dysfunctional family of four. Growing up in Yonkers is hardly idyllic to begin with, and when this novel opens, Cookie has recently endured an incident so traumatic that she has sealed it off in her memory. Whenever details try to resurface, she suppresses any inclination to revisit the incident with a steely mental admonishment to Stop.
But the event has had an undeniable impact on Cookie. “She felt like she had a sunburn all over her heart, and if anyone touched her feelings, she would get stung, hurt to the quick, and maybe even die.”
Overnight, Cookie goes from being a good girl to a tough-as-nails adolescent. And so it follows that when she hears about something called Woodstock, she decides she needs to see it for herself. She commandeers her ex-best friend’s big brother, who has just turned 16, to take her upstate.
Woodstock may have seemed like a mud-splattered bacchanal to conventional America, but Cookie emerges unimpressed. She deals with weirder stuff back in Yonkers on a regular basis: a mother who swings from giddy highs to deranged lows, a father who rants with Italian machismo on the nights he bothers to come home at all, neighbors who habitually feud with one another and, at school, nuns who terrorize their students.
And so, absent the rudder of a stable domestic life, Cookie undertakes to create a new identity for herself — hippie chick? gangster? writer? — while navigating a place and an era that roil with racial strife, political discontent and sexual harassment.
All of this plays out against a psychedelic rock-and-roll soundtrack. Cookie’s hero is Canned Heat’s “Blind Owl” Alan Wilson, and his drug overdose death in 1970, followed in quick succession by the passing of Jimi Hendrix and then Janis Joplin, also color Cookie’s coming of age.
But there are good things, even redemptive moments, that happen in her life, too. She violates implicit color lines when she becomes friends with a black boy named Herman. And she finds reliable refuge in the local library, a place that practices tolerance atypical of the surrounding neighborhood, and that contains a multiplicity of possibilities in the stories that line its shelves.
“YONKERS Yonkers!” is curse, lament, taunt and, ultimately, whoop. Vaccarino writes with zest and in teeming detail. She seems to have trouble bringing this book to a close, but that’s understandable. This is a mesmerizing tale of a girl with gumption.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com