A Growing Up in the 50’s Book Review: The Shame of What We Are

The Shame of What We Are, by Sam Gridley

In the 50’s we did stuff like this:

  • Drive cross country with a baby sitting on its mother’s lap in the front seat.
  • Let 5-year-olds on trikes explore the neighborhood on their own.
  • Cook dinner with cigarette smoke wafting out of our nostrils
  • Watch comedies like Ozzie and Harriet and westerns like Gunsmoke.
  • Read books like The Power of Positive Thinking.

Shame of What We Are, by Sam GridleyAll this stuff happens in Sam Gridley’s “The Shame of What We Are.” Described as a “novel in pieces” it follows the childhood of Art Dennison from age 5 in 1951 to high school in 1963. The book is written almost as a series of short stories. It’s a little like looking through a family scrapbook. You see the person during those times when someone was around with a camera and piece together the rest of the story on your own. I’m reminded also of the movie Boyhood, a coming of age tale covering roughly the same time of life albeit a half century later.

Like my Growing Up in the 50’s blog posts on Off the Leash, the book tries to give the reader a child’s eye view of the decade. Art Dennison and I did experience a lot of the same things, beginning with a patch on the right eye to keep the weaker left eye from losing interest.

Jackson drawing for Shame of What We Are

One of several drawings by Philadelphia artist Tom Jackson that grace the pages of The Shame of What We Are.

Art’s father is generally pissed off at everything. In one story, after Art did something kind of dumb, he expressed the anxiety that his father, if he found out, would class him with “the furnace idiots, the Communist dopes, the people who made DeSoto door handles – all the dumbbells who ought to be despised.” I remember during childhood how foul tempered many of my friends’ fathers were, how your entire interaction with them was geared to avoiding setting them off about something. Art gets so used to his father referring to ethnic groups in slang terms that when he refers to the neighbors as the carloochies Art assumes it’s a slang term for Italians. But instead the Italian neighbors are actually the Carlucci’s.

His dad’s political views would have produced a knowing nod from my father. “People who liked (Adlai) Stevenson were Communists at heart, he said, or else fools, ‘the type that can’t find their own rear end when they are sitting on it.’”

Having been shuffled off to Sunday school through much of my childhood, I appreciated Art’s take on it. “The Bible readings mentioned things Art vaguely knew about, the birth of a so-called savior, an angel appearing to shepherds—stuff he had no reason to believe.”

The title “The Shame of What We Are” refers to the fact that Art’s family is divorced. For a kid in the 50’s that is about on the same level as having a felon or two as parents. It became the way you were defined and the way you defined yourself. But while the decade was based on the ideal of the nuclear family, Art, after his experience, wasn’t buying it. In his mind “there was no need to force small groups of incompatible people to live together because they had a sexual or biological connection.”

For most of his childhood, the narrator of Gridley’s tale is a withdrawn, almost reclusive, kid. As I’m reading this story, and it’s a quick read, I’m hoping nothing really bad happens to Art. But despite the constant relocation, appearing and disappearing parents, broken and reformed families, he grows up. What Gridley effectively captures, and it’s a lesson for parents of all eras, is that more often than not we don’t really understand what our kids think is important and what isn’t.

Jackson drawing of Sputnik

In the 50’s we were worried about Sputnik.

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31 Responses to A Growing Up in the 50’s Book Review: The Shame of What We Are

  1. Donna Janke says:

    The Shame of What We Are sounds like a great read. I like the idea of it being written as a series of short stories. That may be the most effective way to cover that long a time span. Interesting take-away as well – how little parents often understand about what their kids think is important.


  2. patweber says:

    Besides having parenting lessons, it sounds like a fun read Ken. I can see its appeal to baby boomers with your book review. And I soooo remember Sputnik and the school “drills” to get us ready for war. Ahhh. But those were the days! hahaha


  3. Phoenicia says:

    What a different world we live in today. So many guidelines and policies. Children are just not as safe as back then.


  4. Janice Wald says:

    Hi, From what you wrote of the cigarette smoke while cooking sounds like Shame of What We Were. Interesting article, very, I was a sociology major.
    Nice to meet you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Joseph Nebus says:

    The illustrations are great ones.


  6. lenie5860 says:

    So true – some good – the kids riding around the neighbourhood on trikes and being safe; some not so good – mothers holding their children on their lap, I’ve done that; and some, downright scary = cooking dinner while smoking a cigarette (or remember the pictures of the diner chef dropping ashes into the eggs?).
    I do think I would enjoy reading this book. Will have to check the library to see if it’s available.


  7. jacquiegum says:

    This sounds like a must read Ken! When I look back on those “golden” days I sometimes wonder if I have conjured half those memories instead of living them. I think I need to read this…just for affirmation:)


  8. createwithjoy says:

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog this weekend! I really enjoyed your book review and wanted to invite you to share it with my readers at The Book Nook at Create With Joy – my community for book lovers!

    Our current party is open at http://www.create-with-joy.com/2015/05/the-book-nook-at-create-with-joy-9.html.

    Have a wonderful week! 🙂


  9. I loved The Shame of What We Are. It’s tragic and comic at the same time – insightful, moving and important. Highly recommended.


  10. Pingback: Generally Pissed Off | The News from Gridleyville

  11. Erica says:

    You reminded me of a kid I knew who had to wear a patch over his eye. Poor kid.

    I love reading about the 50s. Quite frankly, it is amazing how much the world has changed since the 90s with the way that kids live. This sounds like an enjoyable read.


  12. The Shame of What we Are sounds wonderful in its insightful nature. Maybe I am a throwback to the 50s since I grew up in the boonies of north Idaho in the 1980s, but my family sounds a lot like what’s described here. Had I not be allowed to roam the neighborhood on a trike, then a Spiderman bike on training wheels, and then on my sister’s hand-me-down banana seat bike, I don’t know what would have become of me 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ken Dowell says:

      I grew up on my bike too. As kids we used to have a lot more freedom than kids do now. At age 11 I still walk my son to his bus stop. I was walking to school on my own in kindergarten. A few really awful and widely publicized crimes changed the way bring up our kids. Maybe that’s a little better in Northern Idaho.


  13. Ken, this sounds like a must and enjoyable read.
    I need to read it x


  14. Leora says:

    I love the illustrations. Especially the sputnik eye looking down at the identical houses. Ah, the baby on the lap – yes, we have a family story of a baby that flew out of a car but was fine (an angel must have caught him). I don’t drive unless everyone is wearing a seat belt or in a proper infant seat. Too many tragedies. And cigarettes … my grandfather died too young.


  15. Sounds like an amusing read, Ken. What a difference to today. In Europe there’s a law against anything that could possibly harm children. But some things are excellent like wearing seat belts.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      It is only in the last 20 years that it has become common to wear seat belts in the U.S., irrespective of the laws about it. Guess we still have a little cowboy mentality.


  16. Beth Niebuhr says:

    What a great book! I definitely want to read it. Our lives have changed so much. As children, we had a lot of freedom and nothing horrible happened as a result. Now, kids have to wear helmets for most activities!


    • Ken Dowell says:

      I think a lot of that is caused by living in a litigious society. We used to have more of a sense of being accountable for your own actions and your own safety.


  17. Sounds like a great book. I ‘m just a few years younger and grew up in England, but could totally relate to much of what was said. particular divorced parents. Thankfully mine weren’t, and in fact I didn’t know any one who was, but when you’d hear about them on TV or wherever it was as you say, akin to being a felon. And then of course the scandal of being an unmarried mother!!! Thank goodness at least some things have changed.


  18. Sabrina Q. says:

    What an interesting book. It would be great for kids these days to read it to get perspective on what the world used to be like. Thanks for sharing.


  19. Thanks for reviewing this book, Ken. I grew up in the 60s, but am drawn to the 50s for any number of reasons. This just got added to my reading list!


  20. Sounds like a wonderful read. I grew up in the 60’s, but still had more similarities to the 50’s then kids do today. Where did those days go, we think they were better times, but today kids don’t sit in the hallways, doing nuke bomb drills with their heads between their knees, as if that would of saved them.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      My dad used to keep bottles of water and canned food in a closet in the basement. Stuffing the whole family in there and eating canned food probably would have been a tougher nuclear survival test and staying outside.


  21. Sounds like a pretty good book. The 50’s sound like a very interesting place.


  22. Tim says:

    It’s so true Ken. As a youngster I remember fearing nuclear war, being drafted into the army, and the devil taking my soul because I had thoughts that didn’t align with Sunday school teachings. I even remember being told that Rod Stewart was the devil and by listening to Tonight’s The Night, I was sure to end up in the fiery depths. Now, of course, I know that album word for word but as a tike I rebelled but with fear attached. I wasn’t around in the 50’s but the 60’s were a special time for the manipulation of innocent minds. It was a good time though 🙂


  23. Ken Dowell says:

    Hadn’t heard the Rod Stewart is the devil theory. He seems pretty lame compared to some of the stuff I listened to in the 60’s.


  24. Andy says:

    My father had to put up with the “shame” thing after his father walked out on his mother during his early grade-school years; he told me the other kids at school gave him a hard time about it, as though it was somehow his fault for what had happened. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), all of the “shame” should fall on the parent(s).

    Other notes:
    • Interestingly, I learned about amblyopia from a Peanuts cartoon (Linus had it/wore the patch over his eye).
    • “Having been shuffled off to Sunday school through much of my childhood…”
    I feel your pain on this one, Brother Ken: I myself was ‘punished’ with compulsory church attendance until I left home.
    • “Furnace idiots”? What’s that all about?

    Liked by 1 person

  25. This is one book I just have to get! So much I can relate to. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  26. MaryHill says:

    Interesting spin. I did not grow up in the 50s but I love historical books. Thanks for sharing on Literacy Musing Mondays. 🙂


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