History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family
Dan Lynn Watt
Ms. Hen decided to read this memoir because she had heard the author read from it at an open mic series, and she was fascinated with the story of his youth growing up in an American communist family. This is a different type of life story than she has heard or read before; Ms. Hen does not know that many communists that grew up in the 1940s and 50s. Ms. Hen’s family was ardent anti-communist, like many Americans were in that time.
The memoir starts with Dan’s recollections of his childhood. His father, George, was active in the communist party in the 1930s, and went away to fight in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. His father regaled young Dan with the tale of swimming across the Ebro River and being rescued by Ernest Hemmingway; afterwards, the article was on the front page of THE NEW YORK TIMES. He later entertained Dan with the story of his plane getting shot down by a German fighter plane over Belgium and parachuting to save his life.
When Dan writes about his childhood growing up in New York and listening to his father’s stories, Ms. Hen sees his life through a child’s eyes. She thinks that the author captures the wide-eyed innocence of childhood; he recollects what it was like to be awed by his larger-than-life father, and the energy that surrounded him.
Not everything is this memoir is pleasant. For a long time, George Watt was on the run from the government, because of his involvement with the Communist Party. Ms. Hen understands that it must have been difficult on the family to have the father absent for such long periods of time.
Ms. Hen does not want to give away what happens in this memoir, but she will say that young Dan had a colorful life in his early years. He had to learn how to hide the fact that he came from a communist family from his classmates and teachers at school. He was afraid that people would find out and squeal on him, or he would be ostracized. Ms. Hen imagines what a difficult life it would be to have to hide your politics and opinions from people.
But his life was not all terrible: he became interested in human rights and Civil Rights; he learned how to organize and gets things done. Ms. Hen was impressed by the fearlessness which he acquired in his youth, especially when he travelled to Tennessee to help African-Americans register to vote.
The communists in the United States in the 1940s and 50s had the idea that the Soviet Union was the ultimate workers' paradise; that everyone was equal, and things ran smoothly. They didn’t know then what we know now, that Stalin was a brute and the country quaked in fear. The communists of that time in the United States were dreamers, wishing for a different life where greed and money were not king. Dan’s grandfather Maurice went on a tour of the Soviet Union; meant for propaganda, where the Soviets displayed to the Americans what a bountiful life they had. It was all a ruse. Maurice came back and raved about what a fantastic country it was because the citizens went on vacation and it was paid by the government. Maurice had to travel out of the country via Canada because Americans weren’t allowed to travel directly the Soviet Union from the United States, but they could through other countries.
When the communists in the United States realized that the Soviet Union was not what they believed it to be, their spirit got crushed. Ms. Hen thinks it’s like having delusions, people can believe that something is a certain way, but the truth can turn out to be completely different. Ms. Hen understands that true communism is for dreamers; the people who think the world can be an ideal place. There’s nothing evil about communism, it’s the way that it manifested itself in the world that made the vision turn sour.
This book made Ms. Hen think a lot about the world, and her place in the world, and why everything is the way it is. At the end of the book, the author describes how his life growing up was not all about getting by with basic necessities. There’s more than just survival. There’s also working toward a better world for everyone.