History as Current Events: Looking Back In Time and Staring Into A Mirror

 Leslie Jones Collection, BPL

Leslie Jones Collection, BPL

By David Hirshberg

My Mother’s Son, a work of historical fiction written as the memoir of a radio raconteur, takes place in post-World War II Boston. Inconceivable events in his family’s life and the world around him serve as a perfect vehicle to deal with major issues that affect Americans today: disease, war, politics, immigration, and business.

The novel was purposefully set in earlier times so as to provide some distance from the current "talking heads" climate that instantly categorizes and analyzes events from a narrow, partisan perspective.

The idea to set the current events of the book primarily in 1952 was a conscious decision based on three considerations: the requirement that all of the ingredients that were central to the book could be found in that year; that there would be readers who could connect with the era, even if they were quite young at that time; and that the world of post-War America was not too remote for most people to be able to see a reflection of what is going on today.

In the summer of 1952, when the Korean War was raging, Bostonians were confronted with a major polio epidemic, a bitter senate fight between young Irish congressman (John F. Kennedy) against an entrenched WASP (Henry Cabot Lodge), the impending move of the Braves franchise out of the city, and many shenanigans that involved local politicians and business people that were hidden behind the headlines of the newspapers. It was the perfect cauldron to heat up a story that could resonate with readers in 2018.

We are privileged today (some would say spoiled) by the fact that we can access extraordinary amounts of information on historical events, times, culture, and people online: newspaper articles on political races; photos of politicians, business people, immigrants, Braves icons, trolleys, racetracks and buildings long gone; blogs from soldiers who fought in Korea; articles on places, incidents, and laws in Germany around Kristallnacht; dictionaries of foreign words; maps of Boston; lists of television shows, books and music that were popular in a particular year; among other things great and small.

Collecting data is one thing; organizing it into a cohesive fashion is another. At times, it was overwhelming, as if there were a million "things" I had collected that were then floating in my imagination. I had to select and "download" only what was necessary in a deductively logical fashion, to ensure that I was extracting relevant information out of this morass.

And then, of course, it was crucial that when I inserted an actual person or an event into the narrative, that it was something that third-party experts in a particular field would find credible—consistent with behavior (without caricature) or actions that would get them to provide an acquiescing nod.

MothersSon.jpg

By re-creating the Boston of 1952 (and by using flashbacks to the beginning of the twentieth century), I could construct the scaffolding on which the plot is built. The novel lays bare one of childhood’s essential mysteries: that often, what parents and other adults say is usually what is most convenient for the adults. The opening line of the book, “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth,” introduces the element of doubt right at the outset, where the narrator says:

“To a kid, baseball is leather mitts, rubber balls, wooden bats, insignias, pennants, parks and hot dogs. Polio is doctors, hospitals, shots, paralysis, wheelchairs and lowered voices. War is salutes and medals, pretend battles, make-believe deaths, days off from school, guns and parades. Politics is elections, speeches, buttons, flags, handshakes, history and rallies.

These are the things I knew, for sure, in Boston in 1952. They were truths. They were no less true than my parents wouldn’t lie to me, that the mystery of girls would never be revealed to me, that death came only to the old, and that man’s best friend was a dog.

By the end of that year, I can tell you that I still believed the thing about the dog.”

Fifty years later (in 2012), he notes that:

“Our American culture has been profoundly changed and one can arguably trace the center of this shift to the time immediately preceding and following 1952, allowing us to view this year as the prism that refracted our societal attitudes, values and policies towards war, disease, politics, sports, business and immigration.”

In the 1950s, we were faced with the Korean War, the polio epidemic, vicious political campaigns, the integration of Irish, Italians and Jews into the social fabric of the city, and the recognition that sports were also a business. Today we have wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the AIDS epidemic, vicious political campaigns, the integration of Latin Americans and Muslims into our society, and more ink is spilled in the media on the activities of athletes and owners outside of the sports they play and manage. So, while in many ways, the book is a paean to the Boston of an earlier era (and, by extension, to the America of the post-World War II period), it sings to us today by allowing us to understand that although the instances and events in the book are specific to that period, we can see in them what is going on today—for better or for worse.

David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for a life sciences entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities, many of which are in Boston, separate from his writing endeavors. He was born in a hospital in Cambridge and lived with his parents and an older sister in Newton until he was eight, when the family moved to New York. Much like the narrator in My Mother’s Son, he is a raconteur in real life as well as through his fiction. His range of interests outside of business is in American history, Jewish literature and practices, the nexus of science and religion, the current cultural wars in our society, and in English, Irish and Gordon setters. Find out more at www.davidhirshberg.com.