Thursday, September 29, 2005

Review: Red Diaper Baby

(James Laxer. Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.)

I have hesitated before reviewing this book. Through no fault of its own, it has not proven particularly useful to me, and I fear that will result in me being unfair to it. The writing is good, the material is interesting, but -- well, I'm not sure exactly what I had in mind to achieve with this book when I ordered it, but it really did not advance my project at all except perhaps by fleshing out my sense of the mood for Communists in Canada before 1959.

Laxer's parents were activists in the Communist Party of Canada, and his father was eventually a mid-level leader. His father joined the Party in the late '30s and shortly thereafter recruited into its ranks the woman whom he would later marry. After nearly two decades of utter devotion to the cause they left because of the revelations about Stalin. As one can imagine, having Communist parents during the apex of conformist domesticity lead to a very divided, secret-riven life for Laxer. However, in a lot of other ways, as he skillfully illustrates, his family was very typical for the era. Another interesting and well-painted division in his life was between his extended family on his father's side, working-class Hasidic Jews in Montreal, and the propertied Toronto WASPs on his mother's side.

In terms of its use as political history, I didn't find the book particularly compelling. I can appreciate the need to purge onesself as an adult of the retrospective guilt and loathing at having felt, through no fault of one's own, an actual visceral affection for Joseph Stalin as a child. Unfortunately, through patterns of attention and blindness that are all too common in mainstream narratives, the book is unlikely to challenge readers to seriously consider that there might actually be a need for radical change and that there might be paths other than that followed by the parties of the Third International. Neither Laxer nor his father abandoned struggles for progressive social change forever when ties to the Party were cut, and it is a shame that the mission of the book did not allow for exploration of the multiplicity of ways of relating to social change beyond the highly polarized binary of the 1950s -- it does nothing to afflict or even challenge any but the most reactionary among the comfortable (who tend to view any attempt to characterize any Communists whatsoever as even vaguely human as some kind of plot). It fits some new-to-most information into a very traditional (and mostly implicit) historical framework.

Anyway. It is not a bad book -- the writing is good, the evocation of mood is skillful and useful for developing a qualitative understanding of the era in question. It's just that I, personally, would have been better served putting my money and time somewhere else.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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