This colorful and complex portrait of a 1950s Jewish family is warm and nostalgic, yet grounded by deep history.
David Hirshberg’s My Mother’s Son centers on a vibrant postwar Boston neighborhood that is a veritable melting pot. Its residents are primarily Jewish, Italian, and Irish. Though the novel’s focal year is 1952, the narrative shifts from the past to the present, creating a colorful and complex portrait of a family from their immigration to their assimilation and eventual successes.
The main voice belongs to Joel, who grows up on that diverse block. As an adult, Joel becomes a “radio raconteur,” hosting a program that he uses as a forum for many of his childhood stories. Joel’s memories are filled with larger-than-life personalities and recollections of an era when childhood seemed less complicated and more enjoyably collective.
Beyond the novel’s nostalgic humor, however, are deep reflections. The story captures the psychological aftereffects of the Holocaust, the polio epidemic, and the Korean War. The sometimes crafty politics of Boston’s wards are detailed, particularly the exuberant victory parties. As Joel’s grandfather notes, those elections brought about true change in America, shifting the balance of power from the elite to individuals, with immigrants who were once barely tolerated coming to form major voting blocs.
Of the novel’s various characters, Joel’s Aunt Rose and Uncle Jake are especially memorable. Having survived the brutalities of Nazi Germany, Jake is haunted by his harrowing experiences. He is sustained greatly by his love for Rose, a beautiful and caring woman, who deals with her own issues of melancholy and depression. The details of their marriage are intimate and bittersweet, with a warmth like the “cinnamon, raisins and chocolate” of Rose’s homemade pastries and Jake’s fragrant pipe smoke, but also informed by dark secrets to be discovered with time.
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