Are You Experienced? by Jordan Sonnenblick is a skillful melding of contemporary realistic and historical fiction. At its core this is a story about healing. We meet our main character as he is regaining consciousness in the hospital. Within the first few pages we know Rich is the teenaged son of older parents. In those first feeble, unsuccessful attempts to communicate with his parents from his hospital bed we learn that this particular difficulty in reaching them through his physical state mirrors the communication chasm that has existed between Rich and his parents throughout his life.
Sonnenblick surprised me by using a fantasy device in a story that is almost entirely realistic fiction when we discover Rich has time-traveled back to the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival where he meets his 15-year-old father and uncle Michael–whose death occurred before Rich was born, but the spectre of which has shadowed his life. The fantasy plot device is masterfully woven into the dual narratives of modern-day Rich and Rich’s experiences with his father’s 15-year-old self.
As Rich spends time with his teenaged father and uncle he gains surprising insights into the man he has always known only as his father. He learns of the severe abuse and neglect David and Michael endured throughout their childhood. Dedicated by Sonnenblick to victims of child abuse everywhere, Are You Experienced? paints in stark detail the wreckage child abuse leaves in the lives of its survivors. It portrays in courageous and heartbreaking detail the ways in which a child can survive the immediate physical and mental circumstances of abuse, yet unknowingly carry forward the damaged legacy into the rest of their lives. Remaining alive through abuse does not necessarily equal the opportunity to live. Rich’s ability to reach out to his father in their present because of the insights he gains from the past is the first step in helping his father actually begin to live within the possibility of happiness.
I was touched by David’s story and by Rich’s. It is to Sonnenblick’s credit that he creates such genuine, vulnerable characters and relationships and still manages to weave details of the historic Woodstock concert into the narrative–with appearances by Janis Joplin, John Sebastian and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
**This is not recommended for elementary students. I should note that Sonnenblick does portray the drugs and sex at Woodstock truthfully. It is extremely well done: enough details to create an accurate pictures but not so many as to glamorize or provide a how-to manual for younger readers.