National Post (Latest Edition)

I was raised on a com­mune and all I got was this trou­bling mem­oir

- Philip Marc­hand

Red Star Tat­too: My Life as a Girl Revo­lu­tion­ary

By Sonja Larsen Ran­dom House Canada 272 pp $32

Sonja Larsen, au­thor of the mem­oir Red Star Tat­too: My Life as a Girl Revo­lu­tion­ary is ad­mirably blunt. “It goes with­out say­ing that you can­not write a fam­ily mem­oir with­out a f--ked up fam­ily,” she writes in her ac­knowl­edg­ments. “And so I thank my fam­ily for the bad de­ci­sions that made for good sto­ries.”

This is not the god­dess Irony show­ing off with her snide re­marks. The mem­oirist re­ally does owe some­thing to the mon­strosi­ties of be­hav­iour that make an au­di­ence sit up and en­joy the read. Why should such hor­rors not be ac­knowl­edged, and the real life char­ac­ters be­hind them, with some­thing like thank­ful­ness?

Af­ter all, Larsen also ac­knowl­edges her par­ents’ “good in­ten­tions” that made their bad de­ci­sions “bear­able.” No reader could stand an un­re­lieved chron­i­cle of sadism. Even Dick­ens’ Murd­stone prob­a­bly be­lieved he had David Copperfiel­d’s best in­ter­ests at heart. And Lar­son’s par­ents were a lot nicer than Ed­ward and Jane Murd­stone.

Be­sides, there’s a so­ci­o­log­i­cal point here. Larsen’s par­ents were faulty par­ents in a way pe­cu­liar to their times. That is, they were hip­pie par­ents. Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, de­picts the havoc such a cou­ple wreaks on their son, Con­rad Hens­ley. The at­ti­tude of th­ese parental free spir­its to­ward pro­pri­ety is clear. “To live the bour­geois life was to be ob­sessed with or­der, moral rec­ti­tude, cour­tesy, co­op­er­a­tion, education, fi­nan­cial suc­cess, com­fort, re­spectabil­ity, pride in one’s off­spring, and, above all, do­mes­tic tran­quil­lity,” Wolfe writes. “To Con­rad it sounded like heaven.”

For a while Sonja’s par­ents and her el­der sis­ter live in a col­lec­tive in ru­ral Que­bec, but the group splits, in part be­cause of the usual per­sonal an­tag­o­nisms — Sonja’s mother and father con­stantly fight with each other — and in part be­cause of the Cana­dian win­ters. The sun­nier climes of Cal­i­for­nia beckon and Sonja finds her­self liv­ing in a place called Live Oak Farm in the Sacra­mento Val­ley.

For a while, the in­hab­i­tants try to make it a real farm but like those char­ac­ters in Joseph Con­rad who dis­cover that phys­i­cal com­pe­tence re­quires a sur­pris­ing de­gree of moral fi­bre, they fail at ev­ery­thing. Their zuc­chini crop tastes woody and bit­ter, their fer­til­izer from a nearby cat­tle yard kills ev­ery­thing they plant, a Shet­land pony, con­stantly bit­ing and kick­ing, is a haz­ard and a men­ace.

Mean­while, Sonja’s mother’s boyfriend mo­lests her — a trauma that res­onates to the end of the mem­oir. The in­ci­dent also un­der­lines, in this case of Sonja Lar­son, “girl revo­lu­tion­ary,” a pe­cu­liar kind of vic­tim­hood be­com­ing more preva­lent in North Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture — the child of the flower chil­dren.

Even­tu­ally Sonja and her mother — the hus­band has fi­nally left — join a more se­ri­ous col­lec­tive called the Na­tional La­bor Fed­er­a­tion, based in Brook­lyn, New York and bet­ter known among the mem­ber­ship as the Com­mu­nist Party USA Pro­vi­sional Wing. This Marx­ist-Lenin­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion is run by the “Old Man” whose word is law. The Old Man, be­cause of or in spite of the sense that he has of Sonja Lar­son pos­sess­ing “Daddy is­sues,” takes a shine to the now-teenaged devo­tee, steers her into the in­ner cir­cle, in­clud­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s armed mili­tia, and ap­points her as his mis­tress.

This is a strange cult, even for the United States, which is fer­tile ground for such. One of the odd­est fea­tures is that the Old Man has de­creed the Rev­o­lu­tion, the long hope­d­for rev­o­lu­tion, will de­scend upon the world on a pre­cise date: Feb. 18, 1984. The anal­ogy be­tween rad­i­cal pol­i­tics and apoc­a­lyp­tic re­li­gion has never been as ob­vi­ous.

Red Star un­der­lines an- other pe­cu­liar­ity of Marx­ist- Lenin­ist es­cha­tol­ogy — namely the re­luc­tance of Marx­ist-Lenin­ists ac­tu­ally to spec­u­late or imag­ine vividly the world af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion. They just know that ev­ery­thing will be dif­fer­ent. “I couldn’t pic­ture me or my mother, how old we’d be or even if we would be alive af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion,” Sonja re­calls. But they hope for some­thing. “Af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion,” Sonja be­lieves, “we would all be he­roes. We would look back on our lives in amaze­ment at the his­tory we had cre­ated.”

Fe­bru­ary 1984 came and went of course and this evil world re­mained un­changed. Much to the reader’s re­lief — The Na­tional La­bor Fed­er­a­tion seems a spar­tan, claus­tro­pho­bic, para­noid af­fair, with the Old Man dis­play­ing from time to time a sadis­tic streak — Sonja left the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

It takes a while for Sonja to re­gain her foot­ing but the reader is sym­pa­thetic. Like many an­other spir­i­tu­ally bat­tered child, Sonja finds re­lief in treat­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence as sto­ries to be shared. Red Star is a pro­longed tale, then, never te­dious, never self-ob­sessed, a tri­umphant af­fir­ma­tion of the sto­ry­teller’s art.


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