In 1939, because Russia and Germany signed the Warsaw Pact, the Canadian government made being a member of the Communist Party illegal, so Laurie Lewis’s parents, who were both active members, went into hiding, burying incriminating books in the backyard and leaving Laurie and her brother in a boarding house run by a woman who didn’t ask many questions.
In her memoir, Little Comrades (Porcupine’s Quill), Lewis paints a picture of a small-minded Canada where school principals expelled children from school because their parents were communists and where the RCMP followed and questioned children in the hopes of discovering their parents’ whereabouts. Laurie’s father was a violent man and a heavy drinker who put both his carousing and his Party work before his family, but even though the Party had a hand in many aspects of Lewis’s life, dealing with alcoholism and abuse did not seem to be part of their mandate.
In 1946, when Lewis was 16, she and her mother left her father and ended up in New York City where members of the leftie community loaned them money, helped them find accommodation, and gave her mother work, and where Lewis and her mother each experienced a coming-of-age that included automats, cold water walkups, writers’ groups, the loyalty oath (“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any organization that supports or advocates the overthrow of the government by violent means”), the FBI, and, after her mother had fled to Canada because “the problem was not what they asked you about yourself, but what they asked you about your friends,” the Rosenberg trial.
Lewis’s smart, concise and humourous writing makes this account of her unique upbringing a pleasure to read.
You'll find an excerpt of Little Comrades on page 25 in the latest issue, Geist 87.