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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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