Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review - Chasing the Red Car: Coming of Age in the McCarthy Era by Ellen Ruderman

ISBN #: 978-1450267182
Page Count: 272
Copyright: 2010

Book Summary:
(Taken from book jacket)

Transplanted from her home in the Bronx to the burgeoning San Fernando Valley in 1947, Kim Lebow is faced with trouble on every side.  Her home life is rocky and emotionally unpredictable, while the McCarthy era communist witch hunts strike all around, threatening Kim's father and even reaching into her high school.

The political struggle and personal cataclysms that follow change Kim from an open and caring young girl into a political activist and educator, while leaving emotional scars that only time, and the return of the great love of her life, are able to heal.

Drawing parallels between the political repression of the 1950's and the abuses of executive power after 9/11, Chasing the Red Car reminds us that all politics is personal, and the truth of George Santayana's maxim about history repeating itself can be seen all around us every day.


Kim Lebow - Main Character - Through her first person narrative we follow her life through childhood to old age.  She is influenced greatly by her father, Arthur.

Arthur Lebow - Kim's Father - A professor who faces persecution for his political beliefs, which threatens his job and family stability.

Lila Lebow - Kim's Mother - An emotionally unstable force in Kim's life.  Her unpredictable behavior leaves the other family members walking on eggshells around her.

Jonna Lebow - Kim's younger sister, who bears the brunt of her mother's instability.  Kim tries to protect her from her mother as much as possible.

Andrea - Kim's best friend throughout her life.

Mr. Samuels - An influential teacher in Kim's high school life.  Encourages her to express herself through the school newspaper.

Lucien Rahbar - Kim's boyfriend in college.

Kathy's Review:

I don't know too much about this period in American history, I'm ashamed to admit I had heard of McCarthyism before, and knew vaguely about the accusations of being "red" or communist, but I had no idea how far it reached - into the educational system, into Hollywood, and of course, into the political arena.

As the book synopsis says, "all politics is personal," and this is a central theme of this novel.  Through Kim's eyes, we are able to see the toll that politics takes on her family.  Her father, Arthur (whom she calls "Arthur" rather than "dad" - and also has the same first-name relationship with her mother), teaches her to express her views freely.  However, he comes under fire for doing the same.  His character is mysterious - he disappears during critical times when Kim and her mother need him.  It is not until years later that Kim discovers where he was all those times.

Kim is a very young girl at the beginning of the novel, moving to California and expressing apprehension about leaving her friends.  The author tried to infuse the phrasing and mannerisms of a younger child into these early chapters, and to be honest, these were my least favorite of the book.  It fell slightly flat for me.  Once Kim matured to her teen years, the novel picked up and I was much more engaged.

Time skips forward many times during the novel, and there were times that I wished that the author had focused on some of those in-between years and scenes.  Although I enjoyed the first person perspective of Kim, I wish we could have seen more of Arthur's struggle to hide his secret from his family, and more of Lila's inner turmoil.

The novel ends in 2007, where Kim herself is now a professor and facing similar pressure to keep her political views and associations quiet due to the Bush administration's Patriot Act.  The story wraps up with Kim finding some happiness and peace in her life, and discovering the answers about her family.  I thought the story ended on a high note.

Without disclosing my political affiliation, because that's not really my thing anyway, I will say that it's pretty clear where the author's political agenda lies.  And if that's something that will bother you, then this novel is not for you.  But I think the lesson we can all take away, no matter what side of the political fence we sit on, is that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs.  This is what Arthur taught Kim, and this is the principle that guides Kim's life throughout the novel.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel, although it's not something I'd choose to read if I was cruising through Borders (for a few more weeks anyway).  I was intrigued to see how Kim's story would resolve, as well as her family.  The historical aspect was interesting, especially given my lack of knowledge on the topic.  If you are a student of American history and enjoy politics, this story will engage you.

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