Write what you know is lesson one for creative writing. Yakima educator and author T. Lloyd Winetsky does it in spades with his new book, Los Angeles, 1968: Happy Ranch to Watts.
A fictional story based on personal experiences, Winetsky's third novel is set in an urban Los Angeles middle school enflamed with racial unrest, gangs and vandals run amok.
The year is 1968 and the story unfolds over a period of about six weeks leading up to and including the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Winetsky's first teaching post was actually a seventh-grade classroom in South Central Los Angeles. Those experiences shape Los Angeles, 1968 through the prism of Allen, a heavy-set ne'er-do-well enlisted as a mid-year emergency substitute teacher at a middle school in the LA ghetto named for Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court.
It's Allen's first real full-time job after failed tries that included a short-lived stint with the Peace Corps.
Winetsky sets the table nicely and immerses us in Allen's daily struggles with school politics, friendships and successes in coaxing poetry out of students facing hardships and dangers unimaginable.
There are switchblades, guns, fights and injuries involving students and Allen has to watch his back more than once.
Not only do we sympathize with Allen, but Winetsky also puts his central character's flaws – ranging from temper to language – on full display.
There are a few other supporting characters in the book who also get the well-rounded treatment, but there are some with prominent roles in the story who seem a bit too one dimensional.
Song titles, fashion, cultural icons and lingo of the late 1960s are deftly woven into the story to drop us squarely into the tumultuous spring of 1968.
Beyond the day-to-day question of whether Allen and his students survive this urban warfare, there is the question of whether Allen will stick with his new-found teaching profession.
That answer arrives at the end of this 272-page quick read.
And it's the end that left me not completely satisfied. There are plot themes and developments that would have been nice to see resolved or at least addressed before the book's end.
Then again, leaving the reader wanting more is lesson number two for a story well told like Los Angeles, 1968.