On the brink of a new decade, as the radical 1960s turns to the 1970s, seventeen-year-old Sam Stein is about to grow up in a hurry. Raised in a cushy Long Island suburb where his parents consign him to the care of Tutu Carter, their live-in housekeeper, Sam is learning uncomfortable truths about his place and privilege in his relationship with Tutu and in the world. When he stumbles into a New Year's party and meets firebrand Kim Goodman, his life is changed forever. In short order, he falls in love and flees with her to the drug-soaked East Village of Manhattan, and gets swept up in the revolutionary political movements of the time.
Almost memoirlike in its portrait of its specific time and place, What Sammy Knew — the first work of fiction by Seattle writer David Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard) — is both a coming-of-age novel and an examination of how young people plunge into the historical moment in which they happen to find themselves ... Laskin’s prose can feel strained in the early parts of the novel. But as the conflicts and complications intensify, the writing gets more streamlined. Throughout the book, there are passages that hit the nail exactly on the head ... The period detail is mostly flawless ... The reverse mirror the novel holds up to our own troubled times is startling.
When a writer decides to base his novel’s plot around a middle-class Jewish kid’s coming of age adventure on Long Island in 1970, it’s not a promising sign. Our culture has embraced this tired tale too many times before. It’s not a hopeful start, but somehow, thankfully, the rest of this novel manages to be just fresh and entertaining enough that it races to the finish line as a compelling read well worth your time ... The writing here is breezy ... All the plot points crash together nicely in the end as the characters speed toward a haywire caper doomed from the start. In the end, Sammy acquits himself even if it means disrupting his future, and author Laskin overcomes a hackneyed start to write a sweet novel that holds our interest to the last page.
... the characters fall into stereotypes ... Worse, the one-dimensional characters of color undercut author Laskin’s clear interest in racial justice ... For a book concerned with fighting racism, one would think the two main characters of color would be more complex. While there’s likely a meaningful novel in here somewhere — one that explores the politics of a volatile era and its impact on those involved — the one we’re presented with drowns its own message amid a mix of flat characters and high-school-level politics.