Sunday, January 25, 2009

A review of Lillian Pollak's new book "The Sweetest Dream; Love, Lives, and Assassination"

I’ve often wondered what our overwhelming obsession with nostalgia was really about. We’ve longingly watched our childhood TV shows, and cheered our Broadway revivals.  We have our modern conveniences, of course, but they were nothing like the good old days. And as the headlines reveal scandal after scandal, as we continue to plumb the depths of corruption and deception, yesterday offers us a lot. We can forget for a moment how thoroughly ashamed we are of today. It’s a temporary reprieve.

 The Sweetest Dream is a romantic coming of age tale, the marginally fictionalized story of the life and times of a young activist in The Communist Party of the 1930’s, largely based on the life of Lillian Pollak, the author.

 The essence of the book is encapsulated in the cover photo - Leon Trotsky, his wife Natalya, Van Heijenoort (Trotsky’s secretary) and two young women, Lillian and her friend. The picture, completely authentic, has been transposed onto a fictional brownstone.  

The characters in the book are fictional, however the historical events are completely accurate.  The book is a portrayal of a time in our history that we may find particularly relevant and important. The glossary and pictures attached are a valuable source of information, an historical record.  I’m sure that some will find reason to be critical of the typos, after all, we seem to live to discredit. Yes, the book is rough around the edges, but it does not detract from the inside view it provides of this time of courage and unity. 

The primary characters are two young girls, Miriam and Ketzel, their families and friends. The book is filled with their letters back and forth. We follow them as they sort their way through life. We learn about their personal lives and political activities in this way.

 Through Ketzel’s experience as a student of modern dance, we learn about the great innovators like Martha Graham, Tamiris, and also Anna Sokolow. It has been said that from that perspective alone, the book has great merit.

Through Miriam, we learn about the greater writers of the time- Langston Hughes, John Dos Passos, Delmore Schwartz, and many others. She loves the movies of that time, the Marx Brothers comedies, the romance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.    

The structure of the book works well. As I read, I felt as if I were reading two books combined. At the end of each chapter, the reader finds the second “book”, in the form of a condensed narrative or letter, in italics, set apart - not an uncommon technique, but somehow I found it unusually effective here. 

The first of these narratives opens after the death of Lenin, in the years after the Russian Revolution. As these parallel stories develop, we are immersed in the day-to-day events around the exile of Trotsky, his life with his wife Natalya and their young son and extended family; the rise of Stalin, the oppression and violence, the executions. Trotsky’s campaign against the corruption of the Stalinist regime builds to his ultimate assassination in Mexico. All along, I found myself resisting the temptation to skip ahead to the next chapter in the Trotsky saga. I was glad I resisted. It is these two stories juxtaposed that works so well in this book.

What develops is a mirror effect, the lives of these characters, how they felt about their personal struggles, and their connection to something bigger. It is the ideological struggle, life in real terms against the backdrop of history. The colorful descriptions are eloquently done – the smells, the sounds, the chatter. The call to action, the meetings, the hours spent passing out flyers, knocking on doors, attending rallies, and always the arguments, rifts and factions. These forces intertwine throughout.

I must admit that my attraction to the book was heightened by our current circumstances,  my feeling that this is an important book at this moment in time.  As we see the rapid deterioration of our system, as we brace ourselves for a complete systemic collapse, we tentatively return to issues of social and economic justice. We hear “The Great Depression” mentioned with every daily news report. I’m not sure that we can ever really know what it felt like to live through those times. “The Sweetest Dream” is a glimpse.

As the book winds down, the energy of change slows its pace, and we see a transformation. The assassination of Trotsky has seemingly sapped enthusiasm and commitment. As WWII develops, the focus turns to waging the battle against the Nazis. The book closes in a wrap-up of events, amid acts of generosity and kindness.     

On a personal note, I find it important to describe Lillian because she represents what is possible. She is a cherub, with more life energy than many half her age. I find out now that she is an active member of the “Raging Grannies,” a group I met and interviewed recently at the annual “Bobfest” in Madison, Wisconsin. I can only describe them as an army of Minnie Pearls, on the leading edge of antiwar activism. It is an infectious and powerful group.

Life is a remarkable journey if you pay attention and stay engaged.  It isn’t always possible. I’ve known Lillian Pollak for more than ten years, and had no idea who she was. I’m glad that I found out. I owe special thanks to this remarkable woman, who has just released her first novel. And, for those of you who think that at 65 we’re on the back-nine of life, in April she turns 94.

Marc Sussman


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