Hirshberg, David. “My Mother’s Son”, Fig Tree Books, 2018.
A Novel as Memoir/ A Memoir as Novel
“My Mother’s Son” is a novel that is written as the memoir of a radio raconteur. It uses inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in as a way to deal with major issues that affect Americans today including disease, war, politics, immigration and business. It is set in earlier times thus giving a sense of distance. This is the story of an extended Jewish family in Boston (a grandfather, his two daughters, their husbands, an uncle and two boys, Joel (the narrator) and Steven, his older brother, who are the sons of the older daughter). The story is both universal and personal and has something for everyone— “betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog.” We read about a family and the word it lived in and what made it even more special for me is that I m in Boston as I write about it.
I believe that most of us have shared the same mysteries of childhood. We know that there are things that our parents do not always tell us when we are kids. I remember my parents reverting to Yiddish when they had something to say that they did not want us to hear. Beginning in Boston in 1952, young Joel knows that there were truths that he did not know about. It wasn’t that his parents lied to him, it was that not everything was discussed with the children. In my house, for example, the Holocaust was a forbidden topic and I did not learn about it until I was in college. (My folks did not want to upset “der kinder”). In Joel’s family the mystery of girls was not a topic for discussion; death was only for the old.
Through flashbacks to the early 1900s, we learn about Joel’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his wife who had been murdered and his aunt’s running from Germany (with her husband) on the morning following Kristallnacht, in November 1938. Joel continues to learn about his family and as he does, he discovers that a souvenir baseball bat caused the death of a cousin and a murder. As he began to put things together, he uncovered a family secret.
We move forward to 1952 and the Korean War, polio, Kennedy and baseball. We see that Hirshberg sees that year as when “societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration” were changed. This all sounds very serious but do not worry—there is also great humor here, great dialogue and wonderful descriptions of a time that was. There are also no stereotypes— these are replaced by the multi-ethnic (Irish, Italian and Jewish) cast of characters.
I have been writing about this family and this period as if it is all very real… but it is not. This is all fiction and it all comes from the mind of the author who has stated that it is not based on anything in his life.
In 1952 I was far from Boston, growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana yet the Boston we meet here is very alive and seems very real. We see it through 13-yer-old Joel and his thoughts. Even though I have been in Boston only six years, I have spent a lot of time visiting places and reading about the Boston that was, especially Jewish Boston. What I am trying to say is that even though I have been told that this is all fiction, it could very well have been. We might say that this is “a twenty-first century exploration of the formative American Jewish experiences of the twentieth century.” It speaks to the urgent concerns of today even when we are taken back to another time.
I believe that what David Hirshberg tells us here is that we remember the lies we heard and grew up with more than we remember the truths and while I can easily explain that here, I would rather have you discover what that means by reading this wonderful novel. This is a big book coming in at about 350 pages but during the first reading, it moves quickly. I found that after I read it that I wanted to immediately go back and read it again to see if I missed anything (but that is me; I do that a lot, especially if it is a book that I am reviewing).
I love this book and this is not something I say very often. I think that by reading it, I understand myself a bit more and I certainly think that I understand American Jewish culture a bit better.