family by Micol Ostow is a young adult novel which, according to the back cover is “loosely based on the Manson Family murders of 1969.” Frankly, I think the publishers are playing loose with the use of the word “loosely.”
Okay . . . Charles is Henry, a seductive and manipulative man who gathers young adults around him, on a ranch. It is the 1960s or is it? Charlie, I mean Henry talks about Woodstock as though it were a past event so this would suggest that the events take place in 1970 or beyond. And remember, this novel is “loosely” based on the true story.
But the novel is more about Melinda Jensen, a young girl who runs away from home and is discovered in Haight-Asbury by Henry who lures her into her free-loving community. There Mel is befriended by Shelly, a young girl who reflect Mel’s own shattered self. The bond between the two girls is what keeps Mel rooted in the unreality of the security she feels she’s found within this ersatz family.
The word ersatz crops up in the story as do many of the metaphoric images, echoing throughout the text in a cantatory manner. The narrator cycles around her own story, figuratively and literally running away from her past, desperately broken and hoping that Henry and the other family members can somehow pull her together again.
The lifestyle and many of the events that occur throughout the novel are so close to the truth it hardly blurs the line between “loosely based” and following in the footsteps of Capote and Mailer in writing nonfiction novels. The issue I have with the novel is that Ostow stays so close to what happened—from Manson’s musical ambitions to the use of “Helter Skelter,” the “facts” of the novel are drawn directly from the historical facts.
Ostow does bring her own twist to the climax and I suppose it is effective but not nearly as effective as her choice to tell this story in verse and the narrative voice which retains a certain lyrical distance, which makes sense when the narrator is trying so desperately to distance herself from her past. I would have liked Ostow to be more creative in her choices, to truly create a new “family” and a different type of climactic shattering of the narrator’s fantasy. However, I can’t fault it for not being very well written.