A stunning debut memoir that documents the societal and racial changes of the mid-20th century, told from the perspective of a Chicago family caught in the middle of them.
After the deaths of their parents, Fred and Lillian Gartz, the author and her two brothers found a genealogical treasure: decades’ worth of “letters, diaries, documents, and photos” written and taken by her parents and grandparents. Using these detailed sources, she pieced together this family memoir, which begins with her grandparents’ immigration to Chicago, their strict and sometimes-abusive child-rearing methods, and their financial devastation during the Great Depression. The spotlight then shifts to her parents’ romantic courtship and the early days of their marriage. The joy and innocence of their young love would soon face the demands of everyday life, including caring for Lil’s psychotic mother, “their time-sucking devotion to building maintenance” as landlords, and Fred’s travel-heavy job that severely strained their marriage. Later, she says, the 1950s brought “a mass migration of African Americans, escaping from the…cruelties of the Jim Crow South.” Gartz describes the racial tensions that existed in her white family’s neighborhood, manifesting especially in discriminatory property laws that kept black people in poverty. Gartz concludes the book with her own recollections of the civil rights movement and the era’s changing sexual mores before returning the spotlight to her parents in their old age. Although the subtitle suggests that this book is primarily about race in 1960s Chicago, it actually covers a much broader array of material, both chronologically (from the early 1900s to the ’80s) and topically, as she addresses mental illness, marital distress, and her own quest for independence, among other issues. Her primary sources, which include the aforementioned photographs and quoted letters and journals, provide an invaluable, up-close-and-personal view of historical events and family drama. Gartz writes with a warm tone, and the various people and settings are as well-developed and intriguing as those in a riveting novel.
A rich remembrance of a captivating, transformative era in American history.