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Memoirs

Radical parents, Red shoes and a poet up close and personal.

By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page BW13

Child of the Revolution

A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience (Free Press, $26) covers times that are almost incomprehensible to those who didn't live them. Author Thai Jones is the son of Jeff Jones, a one-time member of the Weather Underground, and fellow radical Eleanor Raskin. Both came from a long line of activists, whose personal and professional sacrifices Jones chronicles. He is named for Nguyen Thai, a fighter for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front whom Raskin met in Cuba in 1969.

Jeff Jones was an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society, and his son evokes the schisms within that organization with a certain amount of humor: "If you thought that white youth should defer to the Black Panthers and Third World revolutionaries, then you gave at least some loyalty to Weathermen. If you believed white youth had to defer to white factory workers, then you subscribed to Progressive Labor. If you thought that white middle-class students could contribute in their own right, then you were really far off. If you didn't care about any of that stuff, then you weren't a member of SDS in the summer of 1969."



Jones was also one of the primary organizers of that year's Days of Rage in Chicago -- a futile exercise in which a couple of hundred participants taunted police, raced through the streets and smashed shop windows. Following this, he vanished into the underground along with Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and other members of Weathermen. A bombing campaign against symbols of American power followed.

How had a movement that stressed peace and love, that was epitomized by the famous photograph of a young girl placing a flower in the muzzle of a Guardsman's gun, come to this?

This was not an abstract question for Thai Jones, born while his parents were still on the run. Their flight ended in 1981 when he was 4 years old and the FBI came to the family's apartment. Thai raced to his bedroom, determined to help his parents, and found a pair of blunt-bladed child's scissors. "Bouncing them in my hand and snipping at the air, I considered . . . charging into the hallway with scissors blazing to defeat these men who had come to hurt our family." But he took the opposite decision to the one his father had made in 1969, put the scissors back into the drawer, and then "went out into the hallway where my father was manacled, slid my small fingers around the cold cuffs into his palm, and stood with him in the corridor holding hands."

A Radical Line raises two questions: What impels people to give up comfortable, safe lives for an ideal of justice, and how are these ideas passed through the generations? And -- more pressing -- where does Thai Jones fit into all this? Does he forgive his parents for the fear and disruption that marred his young life? Does he admire or condemn their actions?

Jones is a reporter who has worked for Newsday, and his journalistic training is both an asset and a hindrance. On the one hand, he gives us a clear-eyed description of the activities of the New Left and the way in which his parents' lives intersected with almost all the significant events of that movement. Raskin helped fleeing SDS member Cathlyn Wilkerson disguise herself after the 1970 townhouse explosion in New York that killed three people who were making bombs. Jones had a conversation with Fred Hampton in Chicago one week before the Black Panther leader was shot in his bed by members of the police department's Red Squad, in coordination with the FBI. The book also communicates the Left's blind self-importance, its factions and mistakes, its fatal mixture of idealism and arrogance.

The first half of the book, which details the lives of Thai Jones's grandparents and great-grandparents, is dry and sometimes confusing, and Jones never really speculates on what motivated these interesting people. The story comes to life, however, when the author talks about his parents. There's a particularly moving section in which Eleanor, pregnant and confused, leaves Jeff. The Weather Underground is in pieces, Jeff is facing a lifetime of furtive living and dead-end jobs, but he settles down with deep love and patience to work for her return. The book would have been structured better if Jones had placed his parents' lives front and center, and periodically abandoned journalistic objectivity in favor of expression and interpretation. Nonetheless, A Radical Line offers a fascinating glimpse into troubled and turbulent times.

Iron-Curtain Dancer

At the age of 4, Dominka Dery, who grew up in Czechoslovakia, charmed her way into ballet school. As she describes in The Twelve Little Cakes (Riverhead, $24.95), she and her mother were buying tickets for "Romeo and Juliet" when she informed the woman at the ticket counter that she intended to marry ballet star Jaroslav Stavicky some day and dance with him in "Swan Lake." The woman smiled, wrote a name on a slip of paper, and -- at a time when only children with Communist Party connections could hope for ballet training -- Dery ended up attending dance school. Dery has retained that charm, and her memoir is delightful to read, filled with humor, family warmth, childish misunderstandings and anecdotes about the three kindly neighbor ladies Dery adopted as grandmothers, and the family dog, Barry, star of several Czech movies.

Through the prism of Dery's family and her own slowly evolving understanding, we learn what it was like to live under communism. The book's title is fitting. The Czechs often think of themselves as humorous, resigned and more likely to respond to adversity with an ironic shrug than with high-flown rhetoric or flashy heroism. But in their own way, Dery's parents were heroic; they kept their integrity in a corrupt environment. Her mother's estrangement from her own parents stemmed from their eminence in the Communist Party. Her father lost his job and became a taxi driver because of his resistance to the 1969 Russian occupation that ended the Prague Spring.

Through the years of Dery's childhood, communism was less a vivid threat than a constant gray pall. "By the mid-eighties, communism was like an old dragon that would occasionally crawl out from its cave and eat someone for dinner," Dery writes. "As long as it wasn't you the dragon was eating, you could live with the sound of screams in the distance. Which was precisely what we did until the Velvet Revolution."

Every now and then the screams became uncomfortably loud, however. Dery suffered a life-threatening infection and ended up in a hospital ward with several gypsy children and a couple of babies. Though she retains her light touch in describing this place, it was clearly hellish. The nurses were grim and punitive; the children half-starved and suffering from diarrhea; the babies' bottoms were chapped and raw. Naturally, Dery devised a plan. She organized the gypsy children, and for some days they managed to keep the babies clean and diapered. Their unity dissolved, however, under the strain of sharing a bag of biscuits Dery's parents had smuggled in.

At one point the family took a vacation in Poland, and Dery began to understand the deprivation suffered by the Poles. Her playmates went hungry; she and her family dined at the Hotel Romance, where the head waiter wore white velvet gloves and food was served on a silver tray. But the food was thin and inedible. "It was heartbreaking," Dery observes, "because the waiters behaved with such dignity."

The Twelve Little Cakes has flaws. Sometimes the descriptions become cute; there's a lack of structure and forward momentum. But this ramble through a childhood that remained full of pleasure and affection despite the efforts of the communist regime is well worth taking.

The Poet at Home and in Exile

In her mosaic of memories, Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (Baskerville, $25.95), Ludmila Shtern quotes an old man who lingered in a doorway to listen as the 22-year-old Brodsky read to his friends: "I don't understand poetry," said this man, whom Shtern called Uncle Grisha. "I've only had four years of school. But the issue isn't the poetry, it's the thoughts . . . your Joseph spoke so many thoughts last night, most of them wouldn't have even occurred to another person even if they lived to be a hundred. And the way he read, it was as though he was praying." It is this kind of insight -- along with poetry quotations, bits and pieces from Brodsky's letters and conversations, fragments of unpublished, joking occasional verse, an excerpt from his trial transcript, and descriptions of Brodsky among his friends in the Soviet Union and adjusting to exile in America -- that makes this book worth reading.

As youngsters, Brodsky, Shtern and their friends had no hope of seeing their work published. They put together slim books for each other, dashed off light-hearted tributes to celebrate birthdays, and once created a magazine dedicated to Pasik, Shtern's mother's kitten. (Brodsky contributed an ode.) We learn about Brodsky's relationship with the enigmatic Marina Basmanova, with whom he had a son who was not even given his name. Shtern quotes some of the poems Brodsky wrote about Marina and describes his anxiety when, many years later, he awaited a visit from his son in New York, afterward remarking only, "Our relationship didn't work out."

In 1963, Brodsky was accused of parasitism, tried and sentenced to five years' hard labor; he served 18 months. Deeply ambivalent about leaving the Soviet Union -- "A poet cannot live without the medium of language" -- he was expelled in 1972. Shtern is not the only commentator to note that Brodsky usually seemed irritated when asked about his incarceration. She quotes him as saying on "The Dick Cavett Show" that in the psychiatric prison, "the food was decent. . . . You could read books, listen to the radio. There were interesting people around, especially the psychos." Knowing how fervently the literary community in the West had worked for his release and that Russian writers (with the notable exception of Solzhenitsyn) had risked their reputations to support him, Shtern found Brodsky's comments a betrayal and told him so. In later years he characterized his experiences differently, speaking of "terrible shots" and ice-cold baths.

Brodsky was clearly a prickly friend. In Russia, he dropped in on Shtern's family often and called to read her his poems while he was in the throes of composition. By the time she immigrated to the United States, he had become a major literary figure here, and she felt that his attitude toward her had changed. At one point, she and her husband joined Brodsky while he was talking to Derek Walcott (later, like Brodsky, to become a Nobel laureate). According to Shtern, Brodsky introduced them by saying, "Derek, here are some typical representatives of the third wave [of Russian immigration]." (But this snub was followed by a penitent phone call and a gift of poetry books.

This memoir is sometimes difficult to read. Shtern digresses, moves backward and forward in time, inserts explanations and descriptions that derail the narrative. So many people are introduced in the first several pages that it's hard to keep track. But Shtern never pretends to be a completely dispassionate observer, and this openness, coupled with her willingness to present Brodsky precisely as he was to her, provides valuable insight into his personality, his milieu and his relationship to his art. •

Juliet Wittman is the theater reviewer for Westword in Denver and a regular contributor to Book World.


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