Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 13, 2006
When I was a wee tad, I went to the little movie house in town. I can't remember the feature, but I do remember a short subject that came on right after the RKO Pathe weekly news.
The little movie starred Frank Sinatra, who was a big heartthrob in the 1940s. The plot went something like this: Sinatra comes out of a school building and overhears students at recess voicing racial and ethnic slurs. He lectures them about how tragic it is that we've just fought a war to end such stuff and now little kids are starting all over.
And then he sings.
He sings "The House I Live In," which is also the title of the little movie, for which Sinatra won an Academy Award. Soon after, Sinatra's career went into decline and it wasn't until he won an Academy Award in the mid-1950s that his career took off again.
I never realized how much the little movie cost Sinatra's career until I read a new book, "The House I Live In: Race in the Twentieth Century," by Robert J. Norrell (Oxford University Press, $19.95 paper). This substantial book is not just about Sinatra, but the American battle for racial tolerance. And what of Sinatra? Norrell recounts that California's right wing House Un-American Activities committee branded Sinatra a Communist front spokesman and "Mrs. Roosevelt in pants."
Sinatra fought back. When the movie's screen writer, Albert Maltz was blacklisted, Sinatra asked this question: "Once they get the movies throttled, how long will it be before the committee gets to work on freedom of the air? How long will it be before we're told what we can say and cannot say into a radio microphone? If you make a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the underdog, will they call you a commie?"
Sinatra got his answer, soon after: He lost his record label, his movie studio, his radio program and his agent.
So much for freedom of speech when you get on the "wrong" side of an issue.
Most of the works of one of the twentieth century's great prose stylists has just been collected in "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: The collected nonfiction of Joan Didion," introduction by John Leonard (Everyman's Library, $30). Leonard, former book reviedw editor of the New York Times and a longtime associate of Didion, rightly points out that she always says things better than he ever could.
And the proof is in the collection. Beginning with the monumental "Slouching Towards Bethlehem and ending with her genealogical essay, "Where I Was From" the stories sparkle with wit and trenchant insights.
"Traitor," by Gudrun Pausewang ($16.95) is one of the latest teen novels published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publications in Minneapolis. Pausewang is a popular German novelist and her story about World War II and a little girl's knowledge that there's a Russian Soldier hiding in the barn is energetically translated into English by Rachel Ward.
Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Boook Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.