At first, politics seem a distant backdrop for dorm life, fraternity parties, classes, student government, a date with Fat Phil and the straight-laced heroine’s crush on her creative writing professor. But, gradually, with escalation of the Vietnam War, racial incidents on campus, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., fires, physical assaults, and the National Guard’s 1970 killing of four students at Kent State University, the narrator becomes politically involved. The story ends on graduation day, when she leads a demonstration to protest military training on campus, then, stoned on marijuana, attends a wild graduation ceremony that is broken up by three demonstrations, a walkout, and several arrests.
Pivotal to the action is an iconic moment in April 1969 when more than 100 black students emerge from a 36-hour takeover of Cornell’s student union building brandishing rifles, fists held high in the black power salute. That moment, captured in a photograph featured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine, was crucial in Cornell’s transformation from seeming rah rah frat school to liberal bastion. It was also an unforgettable, if traumatic, point in the life of the author, who, at the time, was standing guard outside the building to (she thought) protect the blacks after some white fraternity guys had broken in. To this day, the photo serves as an emblem for the many similar–and more serious—campus crises that, in the 1960s, furthered individual, campus and national transformations all over the world, thus giving Ithaca Diaries broad audience appeal.
Written with humor, intelligence, and a great sense of the absurd, Ithaca Diaries will be of interest to anyone who lived through the 1960s or wishes they had; to students and young adults exploring their identities in today’s rapidly changing world, and to members of any generation who are interested in the politics of “change.” Underlying questions concern individuals’ relationship to groups and the broader society; the roles of universities and art in social change; whether violence is crucial to societal transformation, and whether humor can heal the resulting wounds.
Ithaca Diaries, 350 pages long, is divided into four parts, one for each year of the author’s college experience. Each part is structured as a series of chronological stories laced with letters and diary entries, linked together, at times, with explanatory material.