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Red Diaper Baby: A Memoir

by James Laxer

This short memoir by York University political science professor and writer James Laxer is successful because it is about much more than a single life. Laxer grew up in Montreal, Ottawa, and finally Toronto, his childhood in the 1940s and ‘50s was, in many ways, normal. He played hockey with the other kids on his block. He suffered through school. Sometimes he went to a cottage in Muskoka. If this all sounds a little humdrum, it is. The book isn’t at its best in the realm of soft-focus suburban mythology.

But Laxer’s childhood wasn’t entirely normal: his parents were communists. This memoir is as much about them, and about communism in the West, as anything else. The 20th century was tough on communism, especially in the war and postwar periods. Communism was regularly attacked in the Canadian media and didn’t play well with the conservative middle class. The Communist Party was even outlawed for a period during the war. And, of course, there was the House Un-American Activities Committee and the execution of the Rosenbergs in the United States.

The mood of the times forced young Laxer and his communist parents to inhabit two worlds. After the hockey and mischief, he occupied his childhood hours delivering communist party fliers, campaigning against nuclear weapons, and going to communist study groups. He was part of his parents’ secret life.

Laxer does a brilliant job of conveying the confusion of trying to negotiate these two worlds as a child. He also gives a clear, honest child’s-eye view of the McCarthy era tempered with his prudent adult judgment. When necessary, Laxer provides succinct summaries of relevant history: communism’s role in the Second World War, the Korean War, the early Cold War, and events leading up to the McCarthy era.

Best of all, the book is modest and carefully crafted. Laxer doesn’t ramble. Chapters are tight and focused. The book even follows logically toward a kind of climax. Red Diaper Baby could have easily been the front section of a mammoth, sprawling, doorstop-variety memoir, but works much better as a short book about a simple topic: growing up a normal kid in strange times.