The Year the Music Changed: The Letters of Achsa McEachern-Isaacs and Elvis Presley
It is 1955 when fourteen-year-old Achsa McEachern hears “That’s All Right Mama” on the radio, sung by the as-yet-unknown twenty-year-old Elvis Presley. She writes to him to tell him that she can pick hits better than anyone, and this song “deserves to go all the way to number one on Your Hit Parade.” However, she doesn’t think it will, unless it is played on rock and roll radio shows, rather than on the hillbilly station where she heard it. Elvis writes back, expressing his appreciation for her confidence in him, believing her to work at a radio station. When he finds out that Achsa is actually a young and very intelligent girl (she skipped grades three times in elementary school), he asks her to continue writing and to give him grammar lessons in her letters, so he won’t sound stupid.
What follows is a heartwarming and enchanting epistolary novel between two young people feeling their way through the minefields of adolescence on her part, and growing recognition on his. Achsa is self-conscious of the way she looks (a harelip corrected by surgery still leaves some deformity) and her status as a “gimp” or loser at high school. Things aren’t right between her beautiful and loving mother and her repressive father. Elvis is coping with increasing fame and the demands it brings. They vow to tell each other everything in their letters, even things they haven’t told another soul. Achsa’s instructions to Elvis so that he can avoid grammatical errors continue throughout their correspondence, whether the news surrounding the lessons is celebratory or tragic. These instructions are a delight to read. I am amazed that this is Ms. Thomas’s first novel: the writing is so assured. I will be widely recommending The Year the Music Changed, while keeping a tight hold on my copy for future rereadings.