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.
All 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.
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.