Seattle Culture

Finding Freedom 

Seattle author Stacey Levine’s new book, Mice 1961, follows two sisters during a single day of their fraught relationship

By Rachel Gallaher June 12, 2024

A person smiles outdoors, holding a book titled "Mice 1961" by Stacey Levine. The cover features two women in black and white, symbolizing their journey of finding freedom.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

From the get-go, Stacey Levine’s latest novel, Mice 1961, plunges the reader into a story of motion. Full of fast-paced, dramatic language, slicing humor, and a cast of characters that simultaneously attract and repulse, the book (released through Verse Chorus Press) reads quickly — within the first handful of pages, two sisters are running through the sun-soaked streets of their South Florida town — unspooling a strange tale about family, longing, conformity, belonging, and finding the freedom to enjoy life fully, on one’s own terms. 

“I’m interested in playing with language,” says Levine, who, in addition to authoring several novels and a book of short stories, teaches English composition and creative writing at Seattle Central College. “I’m also intrigued by the drama of small, unnoticed, everyday life things.”

Mice 1961 is a testament to this curiosity. The story follows a single, critical day in the life of two sisters who, after losing their mother, become fiercely codependent. Jody, the older one, takes care of Ivy, whom everyone knows as Mice — an unfortunate and cruel nickname resulting from her albinism (an inherited condition that causes people to have very light skin, hair, and eyes). Followed everywhere by Girtle, a housekeeper who sleeps on the floor behind the young women’s couch and wants nothing more than to feel close to the sisters, Mice (relentlessly chased and teased by a pack of local high schoolers) spends her days sneaking out of the house and building radios. At the outset, the entire town is preparing for the annual spring party — a potluck at the bakery where a live quartet will perform — and a large chunk of the novel is dedicated to the events of that soiree and, eventually, what happens when a handsome stranger shows up uninvited.

Set against a backdrop of Cold War hysteria, yet focused on a slice of a day, the story is packed with small, vivid details that build characters (the way someone spills a salad, how people dress, the balancing of a wristwatch on a woman’s knee), and language that veers on the theatrical. The narrative takes on the dramatic undercurrent of an old Hollywood film while also capturing the strained paranoia of the era. 

“When I first started writing, my books were dubbed as experimental, but to me they aren’t,” Levine says. “My work is voice-driven, and I play a lot with language. One of my trademarks as a writer is characters speaking in a completely stylized way. It’s not how people talk to each other in real life.” 

Although initially strange, the language becomes a driving force in the story. Rhythmic, kooky, cruel, and naïve — the characters’ words dance and cut, charged with a power that reduces some to tears and provides others the wholesale acceptance they all seem to crave. 

According to Levine, there are two approaches when writing a story. “Either you start out with very scant material and build it up, or you start with tons of material and whittle it down,” she says. “I usually start writing lines that eventually become paragraphs and build it out from there. For this novel, and maybe this is from being more experienced, but I had a whole mess of material that I had to shrink down.”

The idea for Mice 1961 grew out of an image. One day, Levine was perusing Facebook when she saw a photographer of a friend wearing a striped shirt that made him look like a sailor. “He has this expression of conviction on his face,” she recalls, “and I started thinking about how people become very passionate about political causes.” From there, the Cold War-era details rolled out, followed by Ivy’s coming-of-age story. And Levine nails the period-specific details. The novel took her about seven or eight years to write, and she spent hours every weekend screening old movies from the ’60s to help ground the characters.

“I just hope people enjoy the book and get absorbed by it,” Levine says. “I don’t think we can change the world with novels, but I do think that writing is very powerful, so I hope it is transformative to some readers.”

Transformative, maybe — but the book is undeniably absorbing. Once we meet the cast of absurd, misfit characters, it’s easy to feel invested in their stories and, beyond that, their futures. Levine’s beautiful grip on language and her ability to keep the story tight helps engage the reader despite a style that does feel experimental at times — in the hands of a less-deft writer it would be easy to lose the audience. 

But we feel for them — for Mice, for Girtle, for the sensitive, lost, and searching men and women along the neighborhood’s Reef Way — rooting as their small acts of defiance against the stagnation of daily life lead them closer and closer to freedom.

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