Jeanne Bracken Reviews Ithaca Diaries in Lincoln Review


Lincoln Review and Library’s Write Stuff Boasts Another Book

By Jeanne Bracken

Anita Harris lives in Cambridge, but she has been a member of the Library’s Write Stuff critique group almost since its inception ten years ago. Co-founded by the Lincoln Review and the Library, the Write Stuff has met regularly to share their manuscripts and works-in-progress. A couple of years ago, the first book published by a “Write Stuffer” was Rick Wiggin’s Embattled Farmers.

Now the Write Stuff has birthed a second book, Anita’s Ithaca Diaries, which she describes as “my new coming-of-age memoir of college in the wild-and-wooly 1960s. It’s timely in light of Ferguson; demonstrations against sexism, racism and climate change on college campuses; and concerns about US military involvement, abroad.” Ithaca is of course home to Cornell, where Anita arrived as a dewy-eyed freshman in the fall of 1966, those heady days before American campuses erupted in riots, sit-ins and protests. She arrived “carrying the pink suitcase she’d received as a bat mitzvah gift and wound up leading a demonstration against the military, on graduation day.”

Anita’s college days were in some ways typical, with challenging classwork, roommate issues, making friends, a lot of introspection of the “who am I?” variety. But her college road diverged into the anger and violence of campus protests, building take-overs, a burned dormitory, students carrying weapons, and explosion onto the national scene. Hardly the rather rural educational experience her parents no doubt expected for her.

She writes of these events with an engaging style, combining entries from journals she kept at the time, research into national and Cornell newspapers and other publications, interviews with professors and alumni, and she documents it all carefully with cited sources. Ithaca Diaries would be a good book if it “just” told Anita’s story. It goes far beyond that, though, weaving her experience into the national fabric that was the violent 1960s.

Her story isn’t all violence and terror, though. She writes of classic student experiences with often laugh-out-loud humor, and her tale of travel through Europe will resonate with those who have one of those junior-year-abroad semesters on their résumés.

As Ithaca Diaries took shape, Write Stuffers commented on each of the chapters, not always in chronological order, making suggestions for improvements and clarifications. When the manuscript was finally polished, Anita decided to publish it with the backing of a social media fundraising campaign at Kickstarter. Funds donated by 82 backers paid for indexing and final editing, among other essential aspects of nonfiction books; the administration of Kickstarter liked the project and highlighted it on their website, allowing her to raise more than the required minimum.

After graduating from Cornell, Anita became a journalist, covering feminism, law, justice and environmental affairs for news outlets such as Newsday, PBS, MacNeil/Lehrer, as well as writing commentary for NPR and other media. She is an award-winning journalist, holds a degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. She has taught journalism and writing at Harvard and Yale Universities and at Simmons College.  Currently, she is a writer and communications consultant based in Cambridge.  A new edition of her first book, Broken Patterns, Professional Women and the Quest for a New Feminine Identity, was published in 2014; the Write Stuff also worked with her on updating that book.

            Ithaca Diaries is both classic and fresh, an engaging story that will resonate with those who lived through those tumultuous times and those who want to understand them better. For we who lived through it, it’s daunting to think that this is now “history.” Believe it or not, this month marks the 45th anniversary of the National Guard shootings at Kent State in Ohio. Anita Harris tells a remarkable story that is both unique and universal.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Lincoln Review.
Reprinted here by  permission of Jeanne Bracken.
Copyright 2015 by Jeanne Bracken

Coming of Age in the 1960s