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The Reject Bench
In June, 1961, the Morgan family moved from their little house in a blue collar neighborhood in Upland, California to a bigger and better house in Claremont, five miles away. Jim Morgan was not happy about having to move to what his friends called Snob City. He made no new friends at his new high school until the end of the school year, when two boys invited him to join them. The following year, the three friends appropriated a bench in the quad. Two new students, a British boy and a transfer student from another state, joined them. By senior year, another two transfer students from out of state also joined the group. The Texas boy referred to their lunch spot as The Reject Bench. While normal life was proceeding, the world was in turmoil. The Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination happened. The Civil Rights movement began. By the time of high school graduation, the Vietnam War was beginning to dominate the news. The military draft escalated to where tens of thousands of young men were being called up every month. The Reject Bench is about Jim and his friends and how they lived in those trying times.
The title of Morgan’s sweeping yet intimate memoir refers to the lunch spot favored by the author and his small cadre of pals at Claremont High School in Southern California as the 1960s lurched into full swing. Written with the goal of passing to his daughters and other future Morgans a sense of what his early life was like—a sense that he wishes he had of his parents’ experiences—The Reject Bench is attentive to both the sweep of history in a decade that upended American life (the account closes with his induction into the army and the mind-blowing radio debut of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”) but also to the texture of the everyday chatter and experiences of a Cardinals fan in Dodger country, plus those of his family and fellow reject bench-ers.

Morgan’s commemoration of both the epochal and the personal, especially through long, often amusing stretches of re-imagined dialogue, offers a fresh perspective on an era that has been often memorialized. He depicts his younger self as bright and chatty (“I guess it violates their no-fun policy,” he says, of the Lutheran tendency to discourage dancing) as he and the Rejects debate the issues of the day, from civil rights (“I think down in Mississippi they haven’t accepted the fact they lost the Civil War”), to the rock revolution (“the organ solo is what makes that song really great,” Morgan says, of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”), and beyond: Morgan’s not shy about sharing the boys’ girl talk or innocent-in-retrospect dirty jokes.

That dialogue and Morgan’s clear relish of the era’s pop culture combine into a raucous yet tender portrait of coming of age in a time of change. The conversations zip past, though the memoir doesn’t develop much narrative momentum until life—in the form of the draft board, a sword of Damocles hanging over all the boys—imposes an endpoint on this chapter of Morgan’s development and on this vivid, engaging history.

Takeaway: A vivid evocation of what it felt like—and what everyone was talking about—when coming of age in 1960s Southern California.

Great for fans of: Ken Levine’s The Me Generation... By Me (Growing Up in the '60s), Dorothy K. Fletcher’s HOJO Girl.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A