Chelsey Engel's debut novel, A Summer of Fever and Freedom, explores life as an LGBTQ person during the turbulent summer of 1969 | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Chelsey Engel's debut novel, A Summer of Fever and Freedom, explores life as an LGBTQ person during the turbulent summer of 1969

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What a historic time the year 1969 was. In that summer alone, the first human walked on the moon, members of the gay community rebelled against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village, and over 300,000 music fans gathered in upstate New York for Woodstock. It's a period that's frequently revisited in movies, books, television, and song, by both those who experienced it and those who wish they could.

Pittsburgh author Chelsey Engel had yet to grace the earth in 1969, but through exceptional research and the power of imagination, she composed her debut novel, A Summer of Fever and Freedom, a story about two young women trying to navigate that turbulent time while also trying to discover themselves.

Jane, 18, has recently finished her senior year of high school and is spending the summer anxious to leave for college and to see her brother return from Vietnam. His draft into the war left her and her mother alone to take care of the bookstore they live above. At the beginning, she's meek and unsure of herself and her place in the world.

Maria, on the other hand, is a sure-footed gay activist and writer a few years older than Jane who has been on her own in NYC since her mother kicked her out.

The two meet outside a party in Greenwich Village and are instantly attracted to each other, yet spend the majority of the book denying it. A Summer chronicles the unlikely romance and follows Jane and Maria through a series of loaded settings, a rooftop party for the moon landing, gay underground night clubs, war protests, their first-hand experience in the Stonewall riots, and a trip to Woodstock. A game of cat and mouse between the two grows as Jane has difficulty processing her feelings, and Maria feels too mature, experienced, and wise for Jane.

As a feminist, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and local activist, Engel's views are apparent in A Summer, and the love story she writes is affectionate and endearing. Through the details in the historic events in the book, even the most well-known ones like Jimi Hendrix performing the national anthem at Woodstock, it's clear much time and effort were put into getting the facts right for this historical fiction ode to coming out in a time where it was yet to be accepted.

And, as someone who enjoys reading about the 1960s and '70s, the novel felt like a comprehensive reimagining of living in New York City during great turmoil in the United States. Jane and Maria's apprehension towards a relationship made sense, considering those who identified as LGBTQ+ had to fight, day in and day out, just to be themselves, let alone have a partner. 

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