Author: David HirshbergJuly 24, 2018
My Mother’s Son by Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The underlying lesson of “My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg (Fig Tree Press) is offered in the novel’s first sentence: “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.” As Joel, the novel’s narrator who is also a talk radio host, notes, adults have their reasons for lying: “They tell others they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.” Retiring after doing a radio show for 47 years, Joel now wants to write about his years growing up during the 1950s, including his relationship with his brother, the politics of Boston, the worries about polio and, of course, baseball. However, something else haunts the family: the experiences of his Uncle Jake, who escaped Germany after Kristallnacht, and the reason behind his Aunt Rose’s melancholy Novembers.
Joel and his older brother, Steven, are typical boys: they’re more interested in sports and making money to attend Boston Braves baseball games, than they are in understanding the adult world. They are very proud of Papa, their grandfather, who runs a furniture store and seems to have a hand in a wide variety of activities, including local politics. Their world is rocked when they learn the Braves management may be moving the team to a different city. Joel and Steven connect with a sportswriter, who starts a campaign to keep the team in town. During this time, their Uncle Jake develops polio and the boys hope to learn more about how he arrived in the U.S. However, contradictory stories leave them puzzled about exactly what happened. It’s only as Joel matures that he uncovers some deeply hidden family secrets concerning his uncle and aunt.
While “My Mother’s Son” is a beautiful and moving story about family, it also offers an absorbing look at the backroom politics of the time, how people maneuvered behind the scenes – sometimes using unpleasant methods – to get the results they wanted. The identity of an unnamed candidate will be obvious to those who lived during that time and will resonate with readers. The love and caring the members of Joel’s extended family show for each other shines throughout Joel’s tale. However, it’s the author’s ability to capture Joel’s youthful innocence and his growing ability to understand the world that makes this coming-of-age story stand out.