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Book review Books: Moving tribute to a selfless US communist

The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter: A Memoir
by Jane Lazarre
(Duke University Press, £22.99)

IN THIS memoir, Jane Lazarre weaves a complex and fascinating account of her father, the lifelong communist, party organiser and Spanish civil war veteran William Lazarre, aka Bill Lawrence, in the form of an intergenerational dialogue.

Her father came to the US at the beginning of the last century to escape the pogroms in tsarist Russia and, already enthused by the ideals of communism, he joined the US Communist Party and became a full-time organiser. He volunteered for Spain in 1936 and became a commissar with the Lincoln Brigade.

He spent time in prison as a result of his activism and, in the 1950s, fell foul of the McCarthy witch-hunts and was threatened with deportation for refusing to testify against his comrades.

The post-war splits in the US party and the later Khrushchev revelations caused him great heartache, as did the loss of friends. To compound his woes, his wife died of cancer when their two daughters were quite small, leaving Lazarre to bring them up by himself.

His eldest daughter Jane grew up surrounded by communists and their ideas and experienced not only the elation and comradeship but also ostracism and a sense of being different to other children, of learning to lie to the FBI agents arriving on the doorstep looking for her father.

She writes movingly of her turbulent relationship with her parent and of her rebellion during her teenage years but also of his unstinting love for her.

The book is an attempt to discover who her father really was, the significance of his life and his contribution as a communist to US society. She also attempts to come to terms with her teenage rejection of Lazarre, when she unfairly blamed him for her mother’s death.

She peels away the hurt and reveals the misunderstandings, layer by layer, exploring his life and her own relationship with him and his politics. Elliptically and meticulously, she builds up a fascinating interface between the personal weft and the political warp of both their lives and in doing so creates a fitting monument to a selfless and heroic US communist. She even visits modern-day Spain to retrace her father’s footsteps and finds those battles of the 1930s still resonating today. Into this rich fabric of his east European Jewish heritage and deeply held communist beliefs, she introduces an Afro-American element through her marriage to a black American from the deep south and the experience of bringing up two mixed-race children.

This is a memoir rich in intelligent reflection of an aspect of US political history that receives little airing. It's an elegantly written and moving account.

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