Synopsis of My Mother’s Son
My Mother’s Son is a literary novel written as the memoir of a radio raconteur that uses the inconceivable events of his family’s life and the world in which he lived as a foil to deal with major issues that affect Americans today–disease, war, politics, immigration and business. It has been purposefully set in earlier times so as to provide some distance from the current ‘talking heads’ climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective.
The story revolves around an extended Jewish family in Boston that includes 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. From the Prologue:
“Reflected in it is a story with a tale both personal and universal that I’d skirted around gingerly for all these years, a fictional memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog. In it you’ll find extraordinary revelations about members of my family and the world we lived in, beginning at a time when I caught a glimpse into adulthood, or, as I think about it now, perhaps this was simply the first peep into the rearview mirror of childhood.”
The boys’ Auntie Rose is a pivotal character who is shaped from unimaginable tragedy. She perseveres by making choices that define her steadfastness, tenacity, risk-taking, self-effacement, and capacity for love. This is a person who breaks the mold of what is commonly thought of as a mid-twentieth century woman.
My Mother’s Son also lays bare one of childhood’s essential mysteries: that often, what parents and other adults say is usually what is most convenient for the adults. The opening line of the book, “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth,” introduces the element of doubt at the outset and this is followed by Joel’s observation that sets the foundation upon which the novel is built:
“To a kid, baseball is leather mitts, rubber balls, wooden bats, insignias, pennants, parks and hot dogs. Polio is doctors, hospitals, shots, paralysis, wheelchairs and lowered voices. War is salutes and medals, pretend battles, make-believe deaths, days off from school, guns and parades. Politics is elections, speeches, buttons, flags, handshakes, history and rallies.
These are the things I knew, for sure, in Boston in 1952. They were truths. They were no less true than my parents wouldn’t lie to me, that the mystery of girls would never be revealed to me, that death came only to the old, and that man’s best friend was a dog.
By the end of that year, I can tell you that I still believed the thing about the dog.”
There are flashbacks to the early nineteen hundreds that relate to Joel’s grandfather’s immigrant beginnings and his murdered wife, as well as to his aunt’s flight with her future husband from Germany on the day following Kristallnacht, in November 1938; and others from mid-century such as the seemingly innocuous purchase of a souvenir baseball bat that is the proximate cause of a relative’s death and another man’s murder. Joel’s prescience and ability to put disparate things together lead to the discovery of an unimaginable family secret.
The current action is played out in 1952 when the Korean War is raging, there is a major polio epidemic, a young, Catholic Irish congressman is running for the senate against an entrenched WASP and the sports world is being turned upside down with the move of a baseball franchise out of the city. It is post-War America, on the cusp of dramatic changes that Joel muses about near the end of the book in 2012:
“Our American culture has been profoundly changed and one can arguably trace the center of this shift to the time immediately preceding and following 1952, allowing us to view this year as the prism that refracted our societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration.”
While the book’s themes are serious, provide historical insights and give pause to thoughts about present-day America, it is entertainingly written with humor, vivid description and crackling dialog that captures the multi-ethnic (Irish, Italian and Jewish) voices without caricature.