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The Year the Music Changed: The Letters of Achsa McEachern-Isaacs and Elvis Presley.

The Year the Music Changed:

The Letters of Achsa McEachern-Isaacs and Elvis Presley

Diane Thomas

The Toby Press

POB 8531 New Milford, CT 06776

ISBN: 1592641229, $22.95, 246 pp.

Diane Thomas' "The Year the Music Changed" is an emotionally moving novel that explores the issues of individuality, personal gift, loneliness and race all within the context of that favorite haunt of literary writers: the American South. But the South of this novel isn't the decayed Confederacy of Harper Lee and William Faulkner. Though Thomas has the southern atmosphere down pat when she includes it, the setting of the story is more one of time than of place. "The year" is 1955, and rock music--along with a young singer named Elvis Presley--is roaring out from the land of cotton.

The novel, composed of a series of letters between the fictitious Achsa McEachern (a gifted, slightly disfigured and lonely 14 year-old) and Elvis Presley, begins when Achsa hears Presley's recording of "That's All Right" (Presley's first-ever record) on a "hillbilly" station and writes him a fan letter telling him: "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.'"

At first it seemed to me quite a stretch, even for a fiction, that Elvis Presley would take the time for a platonic correspondence with a 14-year-old girl, but Thomas makes this quite plausible. The correspondence begins before Elvis actually becomes "The King." He meets Colonel Parker in the midst of the novel and from that point on he isn't as faithful a correspondent as he was previously because, as he explains to Achsa, "my life's like one big giant all night car sale nowadays."

Thomas obviously knows something about Elvis. The emotional truths his character expresses here --his talk about "the Lord," his mama, his insecurities and his insatiable drive to succeed in the music business--all ring very true. Achsa's character is also quite plausible as equal parts gifted writer and insecure adolescent who very willingly pours out her heart to the kind-hearted Presley and also gives him--at his request--short grammar lessons.

Achsa's parents, who appear regularly in the correspondence, don't fare quite as well under Thomas' pen: they are more worn-out types than fleshed-out characters. Of course, their personalities are filtered through Achsa's writing, but she's apparently gifted enough with the written word to portray them as flesh and blood characters if that's what they were. They're not. Achsa's mother is the classic silent suffering beauty who's heart holds a tragic secret and who's wordless endurance of her husband's bizarre obsession with her stunning looks gives her character the feel of frozen cardboard, not flesh and blood. She loves Achsa in a distant way but her frosty exterior tells no tales because Achsa and the reader have to keep going to uncover the story's ultimate secret. The unveiling of that secret provides an emotionally satisfying ending but it would have been more so if I had initially cared more about Mrs. McAchearn's character.

Achsa explains to Elvis that her father "loves God so much it makes him mean." Mr. McAchearn is a white, creepy, raging, obsessive male and if you're going to portray this type of guy south of the Maxon-Dixon line, apparently you must add Bible-thumping to the mix. Do you think he might object to Achsa's correspondence with Elvis? Mr. McAchearn is a caricature, not a character and although I was a little surprised when he suddenly shoots off a couple of "Dear John" letters to God and conveniently leaves them lying around (I'm not sure if he knew God's address anyway since he only attended church in order to stare at his wife in the choir loft), this divine correspondence does nothing towards redeeming him from his hopeless two-dimensionality.

Although her parents loom large in Achsa's life, they are, thankfully, secondary characters in the story and so their joint cliched existence doesn't make much of a dent in the emotive power of the novel. Thomas portrays the development of her main players--and the deepening communion between them--so well that "The Year the Music Changed" is, in the end, a profoundly moving testament to art, personal gift and the deep bonds of friendship.
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Author:Atwood, Kathryn
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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