Laurie Lewis began life in the Depression as the daughter of an important member of the Communist Part of Canada. Her father quickly became General Secretary of the Party’s Alberta wing, although he was a miserable alcoholic at home, and eventually lost his position in Alberta due to his addiction. The book is full of interesting anecdotes chronicling Laurie’s life from childhood to coming of age, and her inside perspective on the socialist circles she describes throughout is deeply humane.
Beginning in the depths of the depression and ending in McCarthy’s America, censorship of socialists recurs throughout the memoir. The Communist Party was banned for a time in the Canada of Laurie’s youth, and the anecdote which best reflects the memoir’s title involves Laurie and her brother being questioned by RCMP officers about their parents while children. The issue gains thematic importance by the memoir’s end, where Laurie refuses to betray her mother to the American authorities when questioned. The left-wing personalities populating the memoir are distinctly normal, and the scrutiny they face for their political beliefs would be ridiculous were it not so destructive to their lives.
Lewis is not afraid to present the Communist Party of Canada, or other circles she passed through, as they were, however. She notes explicitly that despite its emancipatory project and rhetoric, women in the Party were still expected to remain within their traditional roles. The division of labour within the household was not up for discussion, and never occurred to the men.
In the chapter “Lumpen” Lewis describes how her father instructed her to stay away from another group of children in the neighbourhood whose family he called lumpen. In Marxist thought, the Lumpenproletariet are members of the working class unlikely to achieve class consciousness. My own introduction to this term was through Huey Newman of the Black Panthers, who used it to describe the exclusion of black Americans from the white working-class proletariat. Lewis presents the terminology without explanation, presumably how her father presented it to her. This absence of elaboration lends an authenticity to the stories and a refreshing willingness to let them stand on their own and allow the reader to draw out their own meaning.
Strangely, most of my previous knowledge of the Communist Party of Canada comes from Erna Paris’ book Jews: An Account of their experience in Canada. Paris’ book is peculiar because, aside from the opening third about Montreal, it focuses on dropped threads in Canada’s Jewish community, like western farming communities and involvement with left-wing politics. Many Canadian Jews were attracted the Communist Party because of the supposedly positive Soviet policy towards Jews, but were barred from most high profile positions. After Khrushchev revealed the Stalinist purges of Russian Jews in 1956, there was an exodus of Jews from the Canadian Party.
I did not expect this oddly specific knowledge to be relevant to Lewis’ memoir, but was pleasantly surprised. After moving from Alberta to British Columbia, Lewis eventually ended up in Toronto. The socialist members of the Toronto’s Jewish community described in Paris’ book make a cameo appearance in the form of many of the friends of Laurie and her mother. The presence of New York’s Jewish community is also felt in the final stretch of the book, although I know virtually nothing about that community.
While I’ve focused on the passages of Lewis’ memoir which most spoke to me, my summation does not do justice to this touching work. I aspire to have a memory so strong when I’m an octogenarian!
Little Comrades is available from The Porcupine’s Quill, a lovely independent Canadian publisher, as is Laurie Lewis’ sequel memoir Love, and all that jazz, which I look forward to reading soon.
Next time: more from Canada’s margins…