Monday, July 18, 2011

In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story by Kim Chernin, first published in 1983; HarperPerennial edition with new forward by author 1994

"It is the ideological aspect that distinguishes this memoir from more familiar stories of daughter-mother resentment."  from a review by Diane McWhorter in the New York Times 8/21/1983

Kim Chernin (b. 1940) spent seven years writing this fascinating memoir whose focus is her mother Rose’s life as an active and prominent member of the Communist Party and the author's relationship with her mother. To tell their story, the author covers four generations of Chernin women: Rose’s mother Perle, Rose, Kim herself, and Kim’s daughter Larissa.

Kim Chernin’s mother Rose told stories about her life that the author recorded in discrete chronological chapters. However, interspersed are chapters that take place in the “present” in which mother and daughter rehash and sort out the various strands of Rose’s stories, some of which Kim had never heard. The early chapters describe Rose's early life, how she and her family were part of the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe who came to America seeking a better life. Rose crossed the Atlantic with her mother and three younger siblings when her father, who had migrated several years earlier, sent for them.  

But life wasn’t easy. Their father mistreated their mother and then abandoned them. Perle barely learned English, hardly ever left the house, and, as is typical in many immigrant families, depended on her children, especially her oldest, Rose, to negotiate life in the United States for her. Perle suffered from depression and was institutionalized several times.

Rose was attracted to learning and loved school. When it was time for Rose to enter high school World War I was being fought. Luckily the high school day started early and ended early so that high school students could work in the factories. Rose was able to go to high school and work after school to help support the family. In school she met her future husband, Paul Kusnitz, who introduced her to socialism.

The memoir is then taken up with Rose’s long involvement with the Communist party, the committees she formed and ran, her travels and her speaking, and the time she spent in jail in the 1950’s. A major emphasis is the effect her work had on her family, especially her daughter, Kim, who grew up in the party but later became disillusioned. Rose’s  lifelong devotion and single-minded commitment to the Communist Party made it very difficult to accept her daughter’s turning away.

In order to write the book the author conducted extensive interviews with her mother. The memoir delineates their difficulties but the interviews and subsequent conversations allowed them the opportunity to listen to each other. Kim Chernin paints a picture of her mother as a strong woman who always kept in mind the difficulties her immigrant mother faced. Writing the memoir provided the author with the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of her mother’s roots and the external events that helped shape her world view.

The memoir includes photos.

To read a piece that Rose Chernin wrote in 1949 about organizing the unemployed in the Bronx in the 1930's, click here.

Perle Chernin
    Rose (Rochele) Chernin – daughter of Perle; married Paul Kusnitz
        Nina Chernin – daughter of Rose and Paul
        Kim Chernin – daughter of Rose and Paul; marrried David Netboy; author
            Larissa Chernin – daughter of Kim and David
    Celia (Zipora, Sylvia) Chernin – daughter of Perle; married Harry Horowitz
        Ethel Horowitz – daughter of Celia and Harry
        Pim and Sandor – twin sons of Celis; half brother of Ethel
        Michael – son of Celia; half brother of Ethel
    Gertrude (Gita) Chernin – daughter of Perle
        Vida – daughter of Gertrude
    Milton (Mikhail) Chernin – son of Perle
    Lillian Chernin – daughter of Perle; marries Norman
        Terry and Paulie – children of Lillian and Norman
Gita Chernin – father’s sister
Sonia Chernin – father’s cousin

Paul Kusnitz – married to Rose Chernin (see above)
Barney Kusnitz – Paul’s brother; married to Sara
Sol Kusnitz
Sam Kusnitz
Max – brother of Paul; married to Anne

Sonia Bloom
Peter Blume – Sonia’s brother
Sarah Kahen
    Jesse Kahen
Ben Gold
Sam Kichle
Al Levy   
David Thorne
August Thorne – David’s brother

Chasnik, Russia
Staten Island, NYC
Bronx, NYC
Waterbury, Conn.
Canonsville, New York
Los Angeles, Calif.
Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, Calif.
Berkeley, Calif.
Binghamton State Hospital, Binghamton NY
Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, Port Murray, New Jersey

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