Local novelist puts Lawrence in an '80s state of mind

If you grew up in small-town Kansas in the 1980s, then you know Evelyn Bucknow's world.

Friendship pins and Ocean Pacific-brand sweatshirts were the currency of adolescent status. Tornado sirens more likely summoned visions of nuclear bombs than deadly twisters. Ronald Reagan ruled, and his wife urged a generation of youngsters to "Just Say No" to drugs.

These details set Lawrence author Laura Moriarty's "The Center of Everything" in a very specific era - one during which her heroine, Evelyn, struggles with poverty, unpopularity, a less-than-stellar mother, competing moral convictions and unrequited first love to emerge a strong, college-bound young woman.

"There's a point where Evelyn says she keeps her head down and just keeps kicking. You've just got to make it through this difficult time, and who knows what's in store for you?" Moriarty says. "I didn't realize that in junior high and high school. I wish I would have. I probably would have spent less nights drinking on the back of various pickup trucks and more nights staying home and reading.

"I'm really curious to see if girls who are this age now would read the book and relate to it."

History repeating

The novel, set in a fictional town near Lawrence, is this year's Read Across Lawrence book. The program encourages everyone in the community to read the same title and then come together for discussions and other activities.


Special to the Journal-World

Lawrence author Laura Moriarty's "The Center of Everything" tells the coming-of-age story of Evelyn Bucknow, who grows up in a fictional small town near Lawrence. A reading, discussion and book signing with Moriarty will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

One of those discussions revolves around the time in which Moriarty's book takes place. Local residents who were active in politics during the '80s will talk about what has changed and what remains the same in Lawrence since that time.

"The '80s began with this huge controversy over building a mall in Lawrence," says Tim Miller, a religious studies professor at Kansas University. "The other big thing in the '80s was that was when the plan for the bypass (South Lawrence Trafficway) began to be circulated, and that has been controversial ever since."

Of course, Lawrence joined the nation - perhaps with even more urgency when "The Day After" was filmed here and televised in 1983 - in its fear of nuclear war.

"Every time I heard a siren, I expected to look up and see if the bombers were coming," says Mayor Boog Highberger, who spent part of the decade as a student at KU. "We thought the end of the world was around the corner."

That fear seems to have diminished, but the SLT still lingers. And that's not all, Highberger says.

"There are a lot of similarities between the Bush administration and the Reagan administration," Highberger says.

Read Across Lawrence

Lawrence author Laura Moriarty's 2003 novel "The Center of Everything" (Hyperion, $22.95) has been selected as this year's Read Across Lawrence book. The program encourages everyone in the community to read the same title and then come together for discussions and other events. Free copies of the book are circulating care of the Lawrence Public Library. The work is also available for purchase at local bookstores.

The following events are scheduled in conjunction with Read Across Lawrence: ¢ "Back to the Future: The '80s and Now," panel discussion, 7 p.m. Monday, Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vt. ¢ "The Center of Everything," reading, discussion and book signing by Lawrence author Laura Moriarty, 7 p.m. Tuesday, library auditorium. ¢ "The Day After," film screening, 2:30 p.m. March 5, library auditorium. ¢ Book discussion: "Coming of Age in Literature," led by Elizabeth Schultz, KU professor emerita of English, and Shelle Rosenfeld, reference librarian, 7 p.m. March 6, library auditorium. ¢ Book discussion: "Growing Up in Kansas," led by Thomas Fox Averill, Kansas author and Washburn University English professor, 7 p.m. March 8, library auditorium. ¢ Book discussion: "Mothers and Daughters," led by Alice Lieberman, KU social welfare professor, 2:30 p.m. March 12, library auditorium. ¢ Book discussion: "The Politics of the '80s," led by Tom Prasch, chairman of the history department at Washburn University, 7 p.m. March 14, KU Natural History Museum. ¢ Film series: "Stella Dallas" (1937), 7 p.m. April 7, library auditorium. ¢ Film series: "The Member of the Wedding" (1952), 7 p.m. April 14, library auditorium. ¢ Film series: "Pretty in Pink" (1986), 7 p.m. April 21, library auditorium. ¢ Film series: "Tumbleweeds" (1999), 7 p.m. April 28, library auditorium.

He cites the Iran-Contra Affair, in which "the government was avoiding laws passed by Congress to further their own foreign policy objectives" as a parallel to Bush's warrantless wire-tapping operation.

Sense of time

Moriarty didn't originally set out to anchor "The Center of Everything" in a particular era, but she soon realized she didn't want the story to be dangling in time. She figured it would be easiest to make Evelyn her own age - now 35, Moriarty was 10 in 1980 - because she would be able to remember the fads, slogan, TV shows and the things people wore and said.

"I thought, 'How can I make it clear that it's 1980? What do I remember from being 10 years old?'" Moriarty says. "I remember sitting at our new house in Montana and watching Ronald Reagan speak to the Republican Convention."

At Phillips Exeter Academy - where Moriarty got a creative writing fellowship after completing a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's in English at KU - she combed through the school's collection of Reagan speeches on videotape to help reconstruct her memories.

Moriarty began to see subtle correlations between the former president - whom she believes saw the world in very black-and-white terms - and her protagonist, who starts the book as a fourth-grader with no clear direction. Her single mother, Tina, is too caught up in her own problems to guide Evelyn, and her grandmother, Eileen, keeps telling her God is the answer.

And then comes a particularly tough summer. Tina gets pregnant, loses her job and falls into a deep depression. Frightened, Evelyn looks for stability at a fundamentalist Christian church.

"She was looking for a foundation, and so she picked this church and she clung onto it with this Reaganesque fervor of this is right and everything else is bad, including your mother," Moriarty says. "And then the rest of the book is about her slowly thinking her way out of it and becoming more compassionate and developing her own moral code."

'Wanting something more'

Toward the end of "The Center of Everything," Evelyn stops by KU's Natural History Museum during a campus visit to see where she'll be living next fall. She becomes enamored by the life-zone panorama and determined to get a job at the museum so she can clean the exhibit at night.

"It would be like magic to get to walk around back there, from the arctic to the tropics and back again, easily stepping from one world to another, taking it all in at once," Moriarty writes.

"She's learning and growing and figuring things out," says Maria Butler, spokeswoman for the Lawrence Public Library. "There's the whole wanting something more, not wanting this (small-town living) to be the limit of her experience in life."

Moriarty can relate. When she moved from tiny Bozeman, Mont., to Lawrence to attend KU, she felt like the world opened up to her.

"There were all these different kinds of people, all these different ways of being," she recalls. "It was just so nice to be exposed to different kinds of thinking and to be able to make choices and learn that just because this is the way they did it in Bozeman, Montana, doesn't mean it's the only way."

That's one thing that hasn't changed since the '80s.

'80s trivia quiz

See if you can answer these questions about Lawrence in the 1980s:

1. What amphibian became a popular write-in candidate for Douglas County Commission in 1986 in response to what issue?

2. What event drew more than 60,000 people to downtown Lawrence in April 1988?

3. While "The Day After" was being filmed in Lawrence, what was its working title?

4. Which two current city commissioners also served on the commission during the 1980s?

5. Name four movies other than "The Day After" that were filmed in Lawrence during the 1980s.

6. What European city was initially selected in 1987 to be Lawrence's first sister city?

7. What was the name of Lawrence' drive-in movie theater, which was torn down in 1985, and where was it located?

8. What were Lawrence residents growing for sale to Culture Farms before it was declared a pyramid scheme and closed down in 1985?

9. A con man convicted in 1981 of bilking local merchants out of thousands of dollars in merchandise claimed to be an heir of a wealthy family connected to what product?

10. What was the "Salina Piece" and where is it now?

Answers: 1. Agnes T. Frog opposed the South Lawrence Trafficway 2. A parade for the National Championship Kansas Jayhawks basketball team 3. "Silence in Heaven" 4. Mike Amyx and Mike Rundle 5. "Nice Girls Don't Explode" (1987), "Kansas" (1988), "Cross of Fire" (1989) and "Where Pigeons Go To Die" (1990) 6. Chamalieres, France 7. The Sunset Drive-In was located on West Sixth Street about where Sonic is today 8. Milk cultures for use in cosmetics manufacturing 9. French's mustard 10. A controversial sculpture moved in 1981 to KU's West Campus

Source: "The Center of Everything" reader's guide, Lawrence Public Library


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