Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review. Boston, The Irish, The Projects, The Kennedys.

I am in a recycling mode these days -- emptying out old drawers, looking in old boxes.  Throwing things out.

It has an odd cleansing quality to it.  Waves of nostalgia mix with the liberating notion that the weight of the past is not a forever and forever proposition.  Cords can be cut.  Docked boats can be unmoored. 

All of this applies to electronic files as well.  Yesterday, I found this review I wrote in 2000 of two wonderful books, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald and Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer.

The review is 12 years old.  The books, even older.  But all stand the test of time, and so get posted here.

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Review of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald and Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer

Sam Seidel
March, 2000

Northeastern cities hold their value exactly because they have not fully succumbed to the powers of Khaki-clad, latte sippers.  They still retain the grit their 19th century immigrant and industrial past -- the sights, sounds and smells preserved in the journey from the Old World to the new.  But for immigrant groups, the past can be a two-edged sword.

Take South Boston, for example.  As it comes under tremendous pressure with the arrival of the new convention center, its strong core is still there – Irish and working class – “a country all unto itself” in the words of one longtime Boston developer. All Souls, A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald, walks us into that world.

MacDonald has us learn about his childhood through a story told with a childlike innocence.   Except that the events are anything but innocent—the violent chaos of the 1974 busing riots; the disintegration of this same neighborhood a decade later under the oppressive influence of guns and drugs – courtesy of gangster Whitey Bulger, brother of former Massachusetts state Senate President William Bulger.   

All Souls is a tale of just exactly what it feels like to be at the bottom of the ladder, and be told that you’re at the top.  MacDonald is able to retell these events with unaccusatory skill, rendering that time and that place with uncanny touch.  As the protected sanctuary of his childhood dissolves and the guns and drugs move in, MacDonald realizes that the true demon here is something different.  The code of the street is the code of silence.  As long as it holds people in its grip, the downfall can continue.  Ironically, only through reaching out to the neighboring black communities of Roxbury and Dorchester is MacDonald able to see a way out of the spiral.

But Boston has long been an Irish town, home to some of this country's greatest citizens.  Take, for example, the Kennedys, emblems of power and prestige.  They started their battles in the end of the 19th century, when legendary politicians like James Michael Curley and John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald ruled the town.  By the time Joseph Kennedy, Sr. married Honey Fitz’s daughter, Curley and Fitzgerald were already locked in battle with the old-line Brahmin establishment.  Joe himself, and then his children, would reap the benefit of their efforts.

Adam Clymer's new biography of Joe’s only surviving male child, Senator Ted Kennedy, examines the results.  The book, simply named Edward M. Kennedy, tells the story of Kennedy’s  uncommon privilege  -- First Communion from the Pope, son of the U.S. ambassador in London, and, by the age of 28, brother of a president of the United States. It tells the story of a towering figure in American political life whose most enduring political lessons may have been those learned through those early fighters in the older Boston’s immigrant ward politics.

But it also tells of a man who had clearly left those politics behind.  Though Kennedy felt that the working class Irish were his core constituency, who had rallied to his side numerous times, he supported busing, and became a pariah in South Boston.  After being booed off stage during an anti-busing rally at Boston City Hall, he never stepped foot in South Boston to campaign during his1976 Senate reelection campaign.

Kennedy’s rejection of Southie was possible because of his national, as well as global appeal.  And that is probably pure Kennedy – a unique combination of wit, grit and grace.  As a senator, he has put his mark on the most important social legislation of the past quarter century.  As an international figure his admirers come from a broad ideological spectrum, from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan.  To his credit Clymer, a reporter for The New York Times, keeps to the story, and does not waste time with scandal, unless it relates to Kennedy's political fortunes.  In all, this is an oddly moving book.

Michael Patrick MacDonald’s amazing tale about this amazing town and Clymer’s well-tempered assessment of one of the seminal American figures of the second half of the 20th century open up the world of Boston – its past, its neighborhoods, its uniqueness.   A city rich in its people has produced two fine tales.  Read them both.

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