Loves, losses and utter disasters

by Tanya Lee

In 1967, Harry Lynch -- a tall, gawky 20-year-old who seemed very much out of his element -- walked into Ruth Carson's writing class at a community college in Oakland, Calif., fulfilled an in-class assignment by writing a poem, and became an enduring, persistently enigmatic figure in his teacher's life.

Years later, Ruth, watching television on 9/11, "sees" Harry among the people fleeing the World Trade Center. Harry had vanished from her life; he dropped in on Berkeley, dropped out, reappeared for a short but disastrous stay in 1989 and then faded back into the landscape he had come from. That was Butte, Mont., home of the infamous Berkeley Pit, an abandoned open-pit copper mine slowly filling with contaminated water that threatens to permanently pollute the underlying aquifer.

By focusing on Harry's comings and goings, novelist Dorothy Bryant intertwines the stories of the two different Berkeleys: the California college town, where the counterculture evolved over four decades, and the Montana open pit mine.

The book gains its unique character from Bryant's portrayal of Ruth, whose unwavering belief that people are acting from the best -- or at least from comprehensible -- motives helps her analyze the complex social environment of Berkeley and the multifaceted people within it. Here is Ruth describing a student in her writing class: "At forty-six, (Marsha) was almost as pretty as she must have been at twenty - petite, delicate, with a round, innocent face framed by blond hair becomingly streaked with silver. Yet, if Marsha was more fortunate and accomplished than my other students of her age, she seemed more bitter and frustrated than any of them."

The Berkeley Pit is a nuanced description of the 1960s from someone who is neither a critic nor a cheerleader. This is a novel that celebrates the decade for its innocence, its commitment to political change, the value it placed on nature and other people. At the same time, it clearly depicts the decade's staggering disappointments, the loss of young people to drugs, to political activism that morphed into fanaticism, and to the weight of a battle that couldn't be won. Bryant, now in her 70s, still has a powerful voice and a rare ability to see between the lines of history with perception and compassion. © High Country News