In this disturbing debut memoir, a “red diaper baby” celebrates surviving a tumultuous upbringing by her Communist, labor-organizing and often absent parents.
Shtarke, a Yiddish word meaning “strong-spirited,” certainly describes De Felice’s late mother, Clara Fiering, an indefatigable labor organizer and advocate for the downtrodden. This episodic book largely focuses on her; the author’s father, Henry Fiering, was cut from the same mold but receives second billing. The author’s parents’ rocky marriage, marked by frequent separations and work that put the interests of the Communist Party and unions first, left De Felice to fend for herself from an early age. In this revealing memoir, she shows how this situation sometimes led to disaster. A monstrous babysitter, for example, regularly left her tied to a chair for hours while she went shopping. One day, when the author was not yet a teenager, a group of boys assaulted her when she was walking home alone from school; when she got home, her mother was busy conducting a political meeting and failed to see her dishevelment. The family also constantly moved wherever the party sent them. Yet amid this trauma, De Felice effectively shows how she deeply loved her parents, who did seem to be committed to her, and how a full complement of relatives and friends added some semblance of stability to her life. Although her parents were avowed atheists, they admonished her to “just remember you’re Jewish,” which provided her with another source of sustenance. However, this memoir lacks a detailed explanation of the parents’ political beliefs, other than the fact that both were Communist Party members until 1953. Did they try to build labor unions so that workers would get fairer wages and better working conditions, or were they committed Marxists striving to create a proletariat that would seize the means of production? The author says that they left the party because “they couldn’t stand the dogma any longer,” but she doesn’t specify what dogma. There are also a few historical inaccuracies, as when the author says that “hundreds died” when cavalry and Army troops attacked unemployed World War I veterans during a 1932 march in Washington, D.C.; most historical accounts put the number at four.
An absorbing, if unsettling, survivor’s account, rendered with passion and spirit.