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Soaring Earth: A Companion Memoir to Enchanted Air

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Soaring Earth: A Companion Memoir to Enchanted Air Book Poster Image
Lyrical free-verse memoir set amid turbulent '60s and '70s.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Engle gives readers a very personal look at some of the most important cultural happenings of the 1960s and '70s -- the Vietnam War protests at UC Berkeley, the farmer workers' strike led by Caesar Chavez, and the hippie communes of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. She names some of her favorite writers: Mexican poet and Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz Lozano; Native American author Vine Deloria Jr.; Puerto Rican Cuban writer and poet, Piri Thomas; and Kiowan novelist, short-story writer, and poet N. Scott Momaday.

Positive Messages

Even if, while growing up, you find yourself lost for a while, it's never too late to find your way back.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although Engle often describes herself as adrift, trying to stay afloat both financially and emotionally, she maintains a strong set of personal values. Surrounded by the drug culture, she decides to get high on poetry and books, not drugs. She's works hard, even at the most menial jobs. And at a point where many young people might have been swallowed by despair, she rights herself and forges a new and successful path for her life.

Violence

Vietnam War protestors are tear-gassed. Hells Angels attack concertgoers at a music festival and people are killed. A man threatens her with a knife. All these incidents are described briefly and without any vivid details

Sex

A kiss.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Friends take LSD and smoke marijuana. Margarita lives with people addicted to drugs. At a concert, she takes a small pill of LSD, but her date takes too many and overdoses. The book is a strong cautionary tale about drug use, as Engle movingly writes of friends whose minds were forever altered by their drug use.

 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that as Margarita Engle's Soaring Earth: A Companion Memoir to Enchanted Air begins, the young Cuban American Margarita of Enchanted Air is now a high school student in Los Angeles. Written in free verse and set in the late 1960s and early '70s, the memoir unfolds against a backdrop of great social and political unrest. As she begins her freshman year at UC Berkeley, Engle finds herself struggling to fit in. She sympathizes with the university's anti-war protesters but chooses instead to attend class. Having seen the damage drugs had done to a high school friend, she chooses books and poetry over drugs. Dropping out of the university, she drifts to the communes of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury and then to New York before rediscovering both herself and her love of writing. While these were often violent times, the few incidents of violence are never vividly described. Engle is the United States' Young People's Poet Laureate, and her coming-of-age story may well be an eye-opener for readers who think poets must have led boring and uneventful lives.

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What's the story?

SOARING EARTH begins in 1966, as Margarita, the daughter of a Cuban Catholic mother and American Jewish father, is a high school student in Los Angeles. Surrounded by blond surfer girls, her dark looks have set her apart from other students. So she dreams of finding bookish friends and of traveling to faraway places, especially back to her beloved Cuba, where she spent vacations and her grandmother still lives. Margarita has always found joy in writing poetry, but when students in her honors creative writing class make cruel comments about her work, she stops writing and vows that if she ever begins again, she will keep her words secret. In 1968, at 17, she begins college at the University of California, Berkeley, working in the kitchen of a co-op dorm to pay for her room.  She studies Hindi and Urdu and swears off boys -- not wanting to take the chance of getting attached to someone who might be sent to Vietnam. She tutors the children of migrant farm workers and skips the many campus anti-war protests, as taking part might mean missing an exam. Soon, the protests and unrest at Berkeley begin to frighten her and she drops out of school. She drifts, living in a commune in Haight-Ashbury (where she's the only sober resident) and then moving to New York City. In New York, working at a switchboard and living in chaotic conditions, Margarita realizes she's traveled too far from the loves of her childhood: poetry and nature. She returns to Los Angeles in 1970, moving in with her parents and enrolling in community college. There, she starts over, studying botany and geology and finishing her education as an agronomy major at a polytechnic university. And, after long years away, she begins to write poetry again.

Is it any good?

This captivating free-verse memoir shows the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and '70s, seen through the eyes of a teen struggling to find her own identity. Soaring Earth is filled with historical references, and readers unfamiliar with Cesar Chavez, Haight-Ashbury, the anti-war protests, or the Altamont Speedway Free Festival may find it a bit difficult to put Engle's experiences in context. But all teens should find something relatable in her journey (struggles fitting in, making unfortunate dating choices, pressure to experiment with drugs).

Both parents and teens should read the Author's Note at the end of the book, where Engle reveals an unexpected reason for writing her memoir. She wants to encourage readers to find their own paths when it comes to college, assuring them that they can find an inspiring education not just at a big name university but also at a community college, like the one she credits with giving her a new life and purpose.

 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the anti-war protests, drug use, and political unrest described in Soaring Earth. What do you have in common with teens who came of age in the late 1960s and early '70s? How is your life different?

  • After she leaves the university, Margarita drifts from place to place, job to job, sometimes nearly becoming homeless. Why do you think it takes her so long to return home to her family?

  • Margarita dreams of traveling to faraway places like India or Peru. Are there places you dream of visiting someday? What do you want to see while you're there?

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