HALF THE WAY HOME: A Momoir of Father nnd Son. By Adam Hochschild. Viking. 197 pp. $15.95.
It would be easy to dismiss Adam Hochschild's memoir of his life with his father as just another sad tale of a poor little rich boy. But Half the Way Home is no Little Gloria Happy at Last. Instead it is a touching story of the tragic misconnection between a vulnerable young boy and his rigidly patriarchal father.
Harold Hochschild -- the German Jewish head of American Metal Climax, a powerful mining company -- and his wife, a WASP socialite, both married extremely late in life and had one son, Adam. While mother and son doted on one another, this particular father dominated the family as well as his son's psyche. Treating the child either like one of the many employes he had to oversee and constantly chastize, or a business associate who had to be taken to the requisite number of lunches and dinners before the closing of a deal, Harold Hochschild instilled only terror in his young son.
A scion of the upper class, Adam Hochschild should have enjoyed a legacy of power. Instead, it was powerlessness. As a boy he was the victim of the kind of psychosomatic illnesses that mark unconscious rebellion. And as a grown man, he did all he could to distance himself from his father's world. Instead of becoming the mainstream politician his father dreamt of, he became a '60s radical and helped found Mother Jones Magazine.
But Half the Way Home isn't only a story of flight. It's also a story of a son's reconciliation with his father. For when Adam Hochschild became a father himself, he was able to learn to accept his father's need to control, without allowing himself to be its victim. And finally, in a last rite of affection, he learned to love his father as he tended him through his final illness. FAMILY SECRETS: A Writer's Search For His Parents And His Past. By David Leitch. Delacorte. 242 pp. $17.95.
If Hochschild's memoir is one that moves its reader to compassion, David Leitch's Family Secrets moves the reader to dismay. Leitch, a British journalist who has written much about his efforts to find his biological parents, tells, in this book, of his ultimate success. The book is billed as an absorbing family mystery. But the only mystery it contains is why we should care about a story so coolly told. And why Leitch himself cared a jot for the biological mother he eventually found.
This cold, calculating, deceptive woman evokes no sympathy whatsoever. Almost as soon as Leitch finds her, she dies as secretively as she lived. But just when you think, you can get away from this oddly assorted mother and son, the mystery thickens. We discover that Leitch's mother hid from him his half-sister, whom he tracks down. But when they meet, no hearts pound or pulses quicken. And, when the plot becomes clotted cream and the newly united siblings find that their mother hid from them a third child who is presumably drifting around England, you hope that their inconclusive search for the missing sister -- or is it a brother? -- won't produce a sequel. MOTHERS TALKING: Sharing the Secret. By Frances Wells Burck. St. Martin's 265 pp. $15.95.
This next book looks at parenting from the parents' rather than the child's vantage point. Mothers Talking consists of a series of interviews with mothers of every variety. There is a heavy overlay of the Yuppy Older Mother going crazy trying to adjust to having a child as well as a career; there are a few selections on low-income women, some offerings by women who have adopted, and finally some from women who prove that you can, in fact, survive mothering and be rewarded by the joys of grandmothering.
For someone who has just had a child, there is a certain resonance in the candid discussions of the mix of ambivalent emotions -- love, fear, frustration, loneliness, exasperation, delight, despair -- that are the roller coaster ride of parenting. And there is a great deal of talk about the one thing all mothers seem to have in common no matter what their class or style of mothering. That is, of course, guilt -- the terrible feeling that no matter what you do, you're doing it wrong, and that no matter how much you give, you're not giving enough.
Despite its many assorted insights, the book suffers from its form. The author has chosen to interview her subjects, and after a while, each one begins to sound like the one that preceded it. Moreover, the decision to opt for quantity -- 42 women who represent every conceivable variation on mothering -- means that quality is sacrificed. We never learn, for example, who these women are, where they come from or where they want to go. The sketchiness of the presentation, finally, overwhelms the content of any particular interview and unfortunately, trivializes that truly difficult and wondrous experience these mothers are trying to address. THE FATHER BOOK: Shared Experiences. Edited by Carol Kay and Ronnie Friedland. G.K. Hall. 293 pp. $19.95.
To compile their collection, the editors of The Father's Book advertised for contributions in a number of magazines and reached out to "every father they knew." They admit that their decision to ask for written submissions skewed their sample toward the better educated, professional father. Soliciting essays that revealed a father's innermost feelings also resulted in a heavy overlay of California touchy-feely. The Fathers' Book is loaded with "new men" -- the kind who gushingly display their emotions as ostentatiously as jocks used to exhibit their football trophies and who give skeptical, liberated women the heebie jeebies. What, for example, does one make of a man who says that "love, purpose, testicles and genes" are his most important qualities?
Mixed in with numerous selections from fathers of newborns and adolescents, single fathers who have custody and those who don't, surrogate fathers whose new wives or live-in lovers have children from another man, are a few that offer real guidance and insight. Donald Bell, a Harvard professor, writes compellingly of the frustrations he experiences as a house-husband whose wife has such a demanding job that she can't even take time off to accompany her child to the doctor's. And Judson Esty Kendall has contributed a heart-wrenching essay on being the father of a fatally ill child. The editors of The Fathers' Book have certainly tried to be comprehensive. But the book nonetheless remains a hodgepodge of disparate styles and views, and doesn't provide the kind of in-depth account most new fathers seek. THE JEWISH MOTHERS' HALL OF FAME. By Fred Bernstein. Doubleday. 174 pp. $6.95.
After all this serious and earnest discourse on the art of how -- or how not -- to be a parent, The Jewish Mothers Hall of Fame, gives much needed comic relief. It's a silly, trivial book -- the kind of thing you buy for your Jewish mother for Hannukah, or Pesach. But it does provoke more than a chuckle or two, as the authors interview the mothers of famous Jewish children like Stephen Spielberg, Eddie Fisher, Neil Sedaka, David Brenner, and Dan Greenburg to name only a few. (Jewish intellectuals, scientists, doctors, lawyers -- even famous ones -- apparently don't have "real Jewish mothers," so none is included.)
One of the funniest parts of the book is Lisa Birnbach's introduction, in which she explains what a Jewish mother is. "Being a Jewish mother is," she tells us, "more complicated than only redistributing guilt. It's harder than cooking brisket . . . . A Jewish mother would never have 'left it to Beaver,' why give up total control?" After this sendoff, strudel-making Jewish mamas regale us with tales of their prides and joys and, of course, with their Jewish guilt and angst. In today's world, in which "The Family" has become a political and moral battleground, it's refreshing to find that at least some of its members have retained a sense of humor. Suzanne Gordon, the author of "Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet" and "Lonely in America," writes frequently about psychology.