“City of Belief” Reading on 45th Anniversary of Blackout

Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont will read at Longfellow Books from her novel, City of Belief, which I describe here. City of Belief is set in a Lower East Side soup kitchen in the mid 1960s. November 9th, the date of the reading, coincides this year with the forty-fifth anniversary of the massive blackout that shrouded New York City, and the shocking self-immolation of Roger LaPorte on the steps of the UN building. Both of these are pivotal events in the lives of Catholic relief workers on the Bowery and Vietnam-war protesters.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 7 pm

Longfellow Books, Portland

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  1. I’ve written the following review of “City of Belief.” Perhaps, since Nicole d’Entremont is reading at a bookstore in Portland, one of the Portland newspapers would be interested in the review.

    Book Review: “City of Belief,” by Nicole d’Entremont
    Reviewed by Peggy Schenk, New Haven Register retired
    The Great Blackout of Nov. 9, 1965.
    It was one of those happenings so unusual, so memorable that those who experienced it never forgot where they were or what they were doing when it occurred. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Blackout and corresponding events that were so emotionally charged they impacted the nation’s thinking regarding senseless war.
    An eyewitness account of those turbulent times of the mid-1960s in New York City is what author Nicole d’Entremont gives readers in her recently published book, “City of Belief.”
    Other than changing most names in an effort to protect privacy, d’Entremont’s work is a true account, providing an important and rare insider look, a slice of life, into a difficult and troubling time in American History.
    When the lights went out, d’Entremont, was in the Lower East Side of Manhatten in shock over the self-immolation that morning of her friend, colleague and fellow Catholic Worker volunteer, Roger LaPorte. He now lay hovering in a hospital between life and death. In a deliberate moment of rash judgment, LaPorte had set himself on fire in a religious act of protest against war in general, the Viet Nam War in particular. Just hours ago he and d’Entremont had had been talking together and eating hot dogs with another friend at a deli near the Williamsburg Bridge.
    In the 239-page book, published by Fox Print Books, Peaks Island, Me., $16, and available through, d’Entremont recounts the events leading up to her friend’s tragic death and her life after college as a volunteer with the Catholic Worker movement in New York City.
    The Catholic Worker movement was founded in the 1930s by Dorothy Day in response to the Depression. Day espoused social justice and aspired to the provide the poor and homeless food, clothing and shelter. It depended on an army of young volunteers, such as d’Entremont, who were willing to live in poverty, peel potatoes and make meatloaf for soup kitchen suppers served to the poor.
    The movement provided housing for volunteers in cold water flats in Little Italy. There were several volunteers to an apartment, in separate men’s and women’s quarters. Volunteers received no salary.
    In addition to feeding and clothing the poor, the movement took on a pacifist role through World War II in the 1940s and the Cold War of the 1950s and ‘60s. By the mid-‘60s it was attracting young people against the Viet Nam War, some of whom were ready to burn their draft cards in public demonstrations and risk jail in doing so.
    Changing the names of most of those involved, including LaPorte, who is Jonathan Le Blanc in the novel, d’Entremont tells us why and how she and others were drawn to the movement.
    “Most of the younger volunteers…were in their 20s and from the middle class, a few were working class, and almost all were white….Some joined the Civil Rights movement in the deep south and later, as the war in Viet Nam continued, became part of the growing anti-war movement seeking out places of organized resistance like the Catholic Worker….”
    In 1965, d’Entremont was one of those volunteers. Today she holds a masters degree in adult education from the University of Maine, and has taught college-level writing courses from Maine to California. She tells her story in 72 crisp, short-story-like chapters that makes the reading flow easily.
    “I always liked the short story form,” and her use of abbreviated chapters “captures the flashbulb intensity of that life,” d’Entremont said.
    The events and conversations just hours prior to her friend’s self destruction have haunted d’Entremont since they occurred, she said.
    “It took me 30 years of thinking about these events and 10 years to write the book,” she said.
    The book also is a story of d’Entremont’s spiritual coming of age. In it she questions faith yet acknowledges a “belligerent belief” in “something unseen that was present and uncontested and worthy of belief.”
    With amazing clarity, d’Entremont takes readers smack into the middle of the electrically charged atmosphere of a peace rally in Union Square where Day and several of her young peace activist colleagues speak above the din of anti-war chants offset by the shouts of counter demonstrators.
    In the days after the rally, we wait with them through the uncertainty of not knowing if or when they will be arrested for their non-violent acts of civil disobedience.
    And d’Entremont takes readers into the mind of 22-year-old Jonathan, who in the early morning hours of Nov. 9 sat in the middle of the street in sight of the United Nations building, poured gasoline all over his head and torso and struck a match.
    What had he done? My God, what had he done?
    After hearing his own screams, someone beating at the flames. Yelling. The sirens. The terrible, terrible abrupt and searing pain and then the red-blackness, a blankness….
    “What was he thinking. He went too far. But it’s done.”
    “Whatever God there was…would understand.”


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