In 1939, Russia and Germany signed the Warsaw Pact and the Canadian government made it illegal to be a member of the Communist Party, so Laurie Lewis’s parents, who were both active members, went into hiding. They buried incriminating books in the backyard and left Laurie and her brother in a boarding house run by a woman who didn’t ask many questions.
In her memoir Little Comrades (Porcupine’s Quill), Lewis paints a picture of a small-minded Canada where school principals expelled children because their parents were Communists and where the RCMP followed and questioned children in the hopes of discovering their parents’ whereabouts. Laurie’s father was a violent man and a heavy drinker who put both his carousing and his Party work before his family, and even though the Party had a hand in many aspects of Lewis’s life, dealing with alcoholism and abuse seems not to have been part of their mandate.
In 1946, when Lewis was sixteen, she and her mother left her father and ended up in New York City, where members of the leftie community loaned them money, helped them find accommodation and gave her mother work. Lewis and her mother each experienced a coming of age that included automats, cold-water walkups, writers’ groups, the FBI, the loyalty oath (“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any organization that supports or advocates the overthrow of the government by violent means”) and, after her mother had fled to Canada because “the problem was not what they asked you about yourself, but what they asked you about your friends,” the Rosenberg trial.
Thanks to Lewis’s smart, concise, humorous writing, this account of a unique upbringing is a pleasure to read.