Bat­tling in­jus­tice in era of black­list

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY KATE MAN­NING Kate Man­ning is the au­thor of the nov­els “My No­to­ri­ous Life” and “White­girl.” book­world@wash­ On March 25 at 3:30 p.m., Kate Al­cott will be at Pol­i­tics and Prose Book­store, 5015 Con­necti­cut Ave. NW.

Kate Al­cott’s new novel, “The Hol­ly­wood Daugh­ter,” comes at a per­fect time to re­mind us of what hap­pens when con­spir­acy the­o­rists and au­thor­i­tar­i­ans are loosed upon the land. Set in the 1940s, the story un­folds in the Hol­ly­wood of big stu­dio stars, with its at­ten­dant glit­ter, swim­ming pools and palm trees. The nar­ra­tor, Jes­sica Mal­loy, is the daugh­ter of a pub­li­cist whose main client is the Swedish ac­tress In­grid Bergman. He stew­ards her through leg­endary star turns in “Casablanca,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Gaslight,” for which she won an Academy Award. (That film coined the term “gaslight­ing” — much in use now — to mean the prac­tice of abu­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion that makes vic­tims dis­be­lieve their own eyes.)

Thir­teen years old and star­ryeyed, Jes­sica reveres Bergman. She stud­ies movie mag­a­zines and gos­sip rags for any shred of in­for­ma­tion about the ac­tress, es­pe­cially about her mar­riage to Pet­ter Lind­ström and their lit­tle girl, Pia. Bergman is ev­ery­where de­picted as a pic­ture of saintly Nordic wom­an­hood, the ideal mother.

When Bergman is cast as a nun in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” Jes­sica’s fa­ther ar­ranges for the film to shoot at Jes­sica’s con­vent school. Jes­sica is thrilled, but her mother, a de­vout Catholic with a prim dis­ap­proval of Tin­sel­town’s loose morals, fears for her daugh­ter’s soul. Jes­sica ob­serves the ten­sion be­tween her par­ents and wres­tles with con­flicted feel­ings about faith and re­li­gion, sex and sin. The lo­cal priest thun­ders on about Hol­ly­wood’s evils: “We, the Catholics of Amer­ica, are at war with the vul­gar­ity, the im­moral­ity, and the sin­ful­ness of a grotesque land of per­verted en­ter­tain­ment — the land we call Hol­ly­wood.”

“You know what that’s a cover for?” Jes­sica’s fa­ther says. “They hate the Jews; they fear any­thing and any­body who isn’t like them. And Wash­ing­ton? The House UnAmer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee — look what they’re do­ing.”

When Bergman has an af­fair with di­rec­tor Roberto Ros­sellini, the po­lit­i­cal witch hunt soon af­fects Jes­sica’s fam­ily di­rectly, as Al­cott con­tin­ues to weave her fic­tional story through the de­tails of mid-20th-cen­tury his­tory. She quotes Sen. Ed­win John­son de­nounc­ing Bergman on the floor of the Se­nate as “a hor­ri­ble ex­am­ple of wom­an­hood and, I re­gret to say, a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence for evil.”

Young Jes­sica is deeply distressed by the un­fair treat­ment of her idol and its fall­out for her fa­ther’s liveli­hood and her fam­ily har­mony. But the harsh po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious cli­mate causes the girl to seek her own truth, to de­fine jus­tice and kind­ness for her­self. In the end she learns to speak out against the forces of in­tol­er­ance. As she does, read­ers may find her tale strik­ingly rel­e­vant to our era.

The best book about the Hol­ly­wood black­list is Vic­tor S. Navasky’s “Nam­ing Names,” which won a Na­tional Book Award in 1981. But a good place to be­gin learn­ing the his­tory of this time, es­pe­cially for a young per­son, might just be “The Hol­ly­wood Daugh­ter.” While the novel suf­fers at times from its ado­les­cent tone, Jes­sica Mal­loy is a wor­thy hero­ine for our era. Kate Al­cott — a pen name for jour­nal­ist Pa­tri­cia O’Brien and the au­thor of “The Dress­maker” and other nov­els — re­minds us that the real dam­age to home and home­land comes from fear­mon­ger­ing and di­vi­sive pol­i­tics.

By Kate Al­cott Dou­ble­day. 305 pp. $26.95


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