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Little Comrades by Laurie Lewis

Little Comrades tells the story of a girl growing up in a dysfunctional left-wing family in the Canadian West during the Depression, then moving, alone with her mother, to New York City during America’s fervently anti-Communist postwar years. With wit and honesty, Laurie Lewis describes an unusual childhood and an adventurous adolescence.

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Novel Idea in Kingston andFanfare Books in Stratford

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Little Comrades Excerpt

Becoming a Secretary

Secrets about politics were always there. From the time I was four years old I knew that my family was different. Knew that I wasn’t to talk about things to people I didn’t know, people my parents didn’t know, kids at school, teachers. People who weren’t part of the Party. I grew up with the Party in my head. It meant the Communist Party, the way the Movement meant the Labour Movement, working people and those who were involved with organizing unions and helping working people. My parents were part of that. They taught me not to talk about what I might hear at home or at meetings. Not talking to strangers meant something special in our house, it meant watch out for the RCMP.

My father was away for about a couple of years. We kids got in trouble when my mother went out at night to a political meeting, because Andy and I would get into a fight. We always fought, but I never really knew what it was about. Nothing, probably. Boy/girl. Eight/six. Worlds apart. The landlady had to come in to make us be quiet because we were hollering and yelling, and when my mother came home she gave us the very dickens. You should be ashamed of yourselves. What will people think of you? What will they think of me? You know how you are supposed to behave. I’m ashamed of you. It’s up to you to be responsible well-behaved kids when I’m out at a meeting. That’s the least you can do for the Party.

The political work was very important. Andy and I knew that. Our parents were the vanguard of the working class. They worked all the time. Going to meetings, to protests, distributing leaflets, organizing people, trying to raise money. When you’re in the Party you dedicate your life to this work — the work of helping the poor. Of leading them to a better life, leading them to socialism.

Secrets about family life, by which I mean about drinking or violence, became connected to political secrets. The truth would reflect badly on my father, so these things, the drinking and the violence, were political secrets, not ever to be mentioned. Not by us, not by my mother.

These are words children know: smack, whack, spanking, licking, whip, punch, beat. We understand each word precisely: the difference between a licking and a beating is the implement used and the part of the body affected. A licking is done, is given, with a leather belt usually, although a razor strop can also serve. A licking is on the buttocks and back of a child. If you have to take your shirt off, it’s a whipping. A whipping is deliberate. It has to be planned. The implement must be grasped. A beating is done with the fists and is usually performed on the front of the child, often about the head and face; the two people face each other, clearly see each other. A beating comes from temper, from anger. Boys are beaten more often than girls. Andy and I knew all of this.

I saw the first time Andy got beaten, the first time my father’s open hand closed into a fist, the first time the whack on the face changed to a punch. Andy answered back, that’s what caused it. Well, he knew better, so why didn’t he keep his mouth shut, like he always told me to? I think my father was surprised too.

My brother, later, remembered almost none of this. I was the small observer in this house, the one who saw everything.

It was 1938 when my father came home from two years of study in the Soviet Union, sent home because of the war everyone knew was coming. My mother, my brother and I moved to Edmonton and he came there to meet us there. We were staying in a couple of furnished rooms. But my mother hadn’t been able to get an apartment yet — she had no money, of course.

First day home, excitement and getting to know our father again. He brought a brooch for my mother — some kind of smooth Russian mineral, and a book. The book was Tom Jones, the story of a ‘worker hero’ by Henry Fielding, published in the Soviet Union, in English. The memory of what gifts he brought for us, his children, has died of neglect.

We gathered in the living room to praise the returning hero. He told us what he learned in the Soviet Union: peevo, beer. Spaseeba, thank you. Nyie gahvaroo paruski, I don’t speak Russian. Nyie paheeymayoo paruski, I don’t understand Russian.With two years’ practice, he said peevo very well. And wodka. That should have been a warning to us.