UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES: A Memoir of the Fifties by Sally Belfrage

UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES: A Memoir of the Fifties

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A roller coaster memory ride through the McCarthy era. The author's British-born parents were briefly Communists in the late '30s; her father remained a fellow traveler during the period chronicled here (the '50s), though her mother dropped out of politics when the couple split up after WW II. In reliving her teenage years, Belfrage (who died last month) focuses on her quest to renounce her family and become an ""all-American girl."" The quest seems quixotic for someone whose father is being trailed by the FBI and whose hysterical mother threatens to jump out the window when Belfrage tries to borrow her best black dress, ironic for a blond ""shiksa"" among the Jewish students at the Bronx High School of Science. Inevitably, it goes awry, sometimes comically (she mistakes her classmates, brainy offspring of refugees from Hitler, for all-American kids), and sometimes painfully. She is torn between her consciousness of America's hypocrisy and shame over her ""un-American"" father and a mother who is a disastrous failure as a homemaker. She tries to bury her conflict by dating Dan, a (Jewish) West Point cadet. Belfrage (Living in War, 1987) writes from the perspective of her teenage self, which fuels the story with the energy and righteous anger of adolescence -- but also with its self-absorbed one-sidedness. Her mother, for instance, gets little credit for supporting two children and maintaining a career against overwhelming odds. Only the epilogue, which revisits her parents and Dan decades later, exhibits the emotional density that comes with age. Belfrage is at her best when highlighting the daily travesties that red-baiting created: teachers grading her based on their political sympathies or fears; the government's unavailing attempt to get Molly Belfrage to testify against her ex-husband and eventual decision to deport them both. A spirited but myopic account of an adolescence that was both anomalous and all too American.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1994
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: HarperCollins