Review: A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father



A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father
by David Maraniss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars 
 
On February 25th thru the 29th of 1952 the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) held hearings on "Communism in the Detroit Region" in Room 740 of the Detroit Federal Building.  Among those called to testify was Elliot Maraniss, the author David Maraniss’s father.  Being subpoenaed to appear before the committee had already cost the then 34 year old Elliott his job at the Detroit Times, and would force him to uproot his family more than once over the next five years as he tried to reestablish himself and his career. 

Also appearing before the Committee was Bob Cummins, Elliott’s brother-in-law, who years before had been called, like many idealistic young men of his age, to join the fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War - an activity not looked upon favorably by the Committee.

Active in the questioning in Room 740 were Frank Tavenner of Virginia, chief counsel to the committee, along with Georgia Dixiecrat John Stephens Wood, and Charles Potter, a Republican of Michigan.  

The star witness over that week in February was an FBI undercover informant (and grandmother) Bernice Baldwin.

David Maraniss, in A Good American Family, tells the story of all these characters, and others, though his focus of course is on his father Elliott.  David Maraniss dove deep in researching this book and the people he chronicles, often quoting directly from his source material.  The book moves from biographies to war histories to family stories, painting in the details of these Americans who came together in Room 740.  From the Jim Crow south to the campus of the University of Michigan and the idealistic staff of the Michigan Daily, to the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, to home life after the War, David weaves his tale, all the while grappling to understand the motivations of his parents (both deceased by the time he began this book) to have been active in the Communist Party in their youth.

While there are points in the book where the story seems to go too deep, i.e. too far from Room 740, particularly in providing background on Mr. Tavenner, even then the writing is expressive and carries you along.  Each of the individuals portrayed come across as human, as fallible, and as, perhaps, sometimes not upholding the ideals of America that they think they do. Taken together they give us a window into the 1950s "Red Scare" and it's impact on those caught up in it. 

In the end the author does not excuse his parents their failings. In his own words - "They were no innocents, but nor did the fact that they had been communists make them traitors. They never betrayed America and loved it no less than officials who rendered judgement on them in Room 740...”

I read the audiobook, narrated by the author.

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