When grown-ups were mysterious

A debut novel explores Bostonian Jewish boyhood and the sea changes of 1952

WASHINGTON STREET in downtown Boston in the 1950s (photo credit: CITY OF BOSTON ARCHIVES)
WASHINGTON STREET in downtown Boston in the 1950s
As a Jewish kid growing up in the Boston area, I heard from my pals that you could ask anyone you met “How’s your Aunt Rose?” and the answer would be “Fine, but where do you know my Aunt Rose from?” Everybody had an Aunt Rose. I had two.
In My Mother’s Son, David Hirshberg scatters pages from his Aunt Rose’s diary among a portrayal of boyhood in Boston’s Jewish community in the 1950s. He’s a skillful writer, not tempted by clichés, and he’s believable when he presents the point of view of a preteen trying to separate the truth in what grown-ups say from the smoke screen they mask it with for children.
“Do you think old people know stuff about God but won’t tell us?” he writes. Along with the conviction that the grown-ups aren’t being candid, there is also still the trust that the grown-ups possess important answers.
A prologue explains that Hirshberg has woven the narrative together from nostalgic stories that he spun out for many years as a radio commentator. He focuses on the year 1952 when, among other things, his beloved baseball team, the Boston Braves, pulled up its stakes – not for Atlanta, where they’re based today, but for Milwaukee. Across the globe, the Korean War was claiming American casualties, while in young David’s very neighborhood the polio epidemic was a constant threat.
Did I say David? For the purpose of the novel, David renames himself Joel, perhaps to allow himself a little more license to fictionalize. And some other characters go entirely nameless – including “the congressman,” although no effort is made to hide his identity. He’s the handsome grandson of Boston Irish patriarch Honey Fitz, running for the Senate in 1952. Even if only legal reasons are involved, it’s good for the novel that nobody calls him “Kennedy,” because the novel does not want to be wrenched into the 1960s. Its final chapters do update the major characters even into later decades, but it is always careful not to get too far ahead of itself.
Hirshberg is punctilious, at the end, about informing us what becomes of the characters – who died, when, and how; who got caught by the police; and so on. After all, not only do we know them from the novel, but under different aliases they figured in his radio broadcasts over the years.
What makes it all curious is that apparently there never were any radio broadcasts and there never was such a David Hirshberg. According to DavidHirshberg.com, “David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors... Hirshberg is a New Yorker who holds an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.”
I’m not sure that the postmodern sleight of hand – inventing an alter ego who in turn invents a fictionalized version of himself – makes the novel more compelling than if it simply began “Call me Joel” or “What can you say about a 12-year-old girl with polio?” But if he’s a New Yorker and he can depict Boston vividly enough to fool a native like me, I won’t argue.
While the dialogue between the kids in the novel was believable, much of the dialogue between the adults rang false, as if Hirshberg’s protagonist – despite being a radio personality – had forgotten that natural talk doesn’t use the same vocabulary and structure as polished writing. The adults have long speeches that compel attention, but are just a little too literary, as they tell their varied stories of fleeing the Nazis, reaching the US, fighting in Korea. The details, Joel the narrator realizes, could be truth that is stranger than fiction, or they could be fiction.
The Boston of the novel’s adults was a stable world for decades, where men sat around engaging in small-time politics bordering on small-time crime – or small-time crime bordering on smalltime politics – and conversation was laced with old-country expressions (the novel has a glossary divided into five languages, not counting two phrases in Latin). But it’s a world that’s about to change mightily, and 1952 was a pivotal year. The Korean War foreshadows the national disenchantment with military adventures, the charismatic congressman foreshadows the new, image-centered politics, and the transplanting of the baseball team foreshadows the rampant prioritization of profit over sentiment and over so much else in life.
The Jewish angle is provided by the Holocaust trauma recounted by several of the characters. When a man shows up who wears a skullcap under his hat, he’s the first man Joel has seen wearing a skullcap outside the synagogue. Today it sounds strange, but given the time and place, I buy it.
Overall, My Mother’s Son is an accomplished novel, told insightfully from a youngster’s point of view. Compliments to David Hirshberg, whoever he is.