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Chasing the Red Car
Author: Ellen Ruderman
Who would want to leave the Bronx? Certainly not Kim Lebow whose parents have decided to uproot the entire family to California. While sitting on the stoop of her apartment on Bolton Avenue she tried to convince herself and her friends that this trip was just a short three-month vacation. But, Kim and her sister, Jonna, knew better. Jonna was truly upset and when she voiced her opinion to her mother, she was told in no uncertain terms that the decision was not hers but her parents. Arthur, their father, was up for a job at a major University and was glad to be leaving his present position at City College. Politics can often come into play in many jobs and expressing his feelings obviously created dissention for him. Convincing herself that the Route 66 trip would be fun she related to her friends how excited she was about even seeing Roy Roger’s horse Trigger, Dale Evans and some movie stars. As the author relates the beginning of the story I have to say that living in Pelham Parkway up until a few months ago this story brings back great memories. The trip to Lydig Avenue, which is still filled with great stores today and going to the RKO Pelham, really brings back great memories. Jonna had only one friend, Harry. Jonna was truly shaken up about leaving the one person who made her feel safe. Kim was concerned about her mother who never seemed to leave her bed and when she did she was always in a foul mood. Many people leave places for different reasons and Kim began to understand her father’s more after taking this special walk with him.
The trip to California was exciting in some respects and enlightening in others. His father’s friend lost his job because of his political viewpoint. A discussion at dinner one night would enlighten the reader and both children to the political dissent going on in the country and to her father’s outspoken ways. Listening to her mother, as I did mine living in the Bronx, playing Mah Jongg brought back great memories. When Kim’s vision is to ride the Red Car with her father when she gets older. The Red Car is his way of getting from place to her and her link to another world. Kim is bored and the hot valley summers and the tension between her parents and the political unrest causes her to want to take that ride in that Red Car over the Cahuenga Pass and find out what is on the other side.
As the story continues we meet many of Kim’s mother and father’s new friends, hear their discussions concerning the political arena, their concerns for many of the jobs of the college professors and the hint that the colleges are going after anyone that might be considered a Communist. The turbulence of the times takes its toll on many people as one teacher pays the price for his free thinking opinions and his ability to draw the students out and allow them to question. One teacher refuses to allow her students to question causing others to wonder why she is there and for what reason. Kim and her fellow students are devastated when this one teacher is discharged as he helped draw her out using the school newspaper as an outlet for her thoughts and ideas. Both Kim and Andrea helped support a Senatorial Candidate and once again the shift was pointed against her as Nixon’s smear campaign not only caused her to lose but also tarnished her reputation accusing this candidate of being a Soft Communist or Red. The end result is tragic and one young girl loses more than just a good mentor and friend. As the story continues we learn more about the political situation and Kim is now in college overcoming many other hurdles. But, the one thing that is constant and in the back of her mind is the volatile situation between her parents and the lack of care for her sister left behind. Jonna shows and has a great deal of resentment for her mother Lila and feels neglected in so many ways. Kim is torn and turned into many different places as she is constantly called upon to come home when her mother takes too many pills and tries to end her life. The last incident more serious than the rest and her father nowhere in sight. With only the help of her Aunt Marion, who she finally bonded with, Kim needs to decide where her life is going. Meeting a young man named Lucien and hearing their discussions about the political issues is truly enlightening as the author brilliantly brings the reader back in time to this period where just a mere sentence or a few words expressing a different opinion could get you tagged or labeled as a Red and losing your job or even more. When the Red Car is dismantled and the people of the Valley are left with only a bus, Kim and her friends become disheartened. Trying to follow her dreams and her aspirations of becoming a great writer, this is one more thing that makes you wonder whether these people really lived in a democracy at the time or was censorship going to be the norm.
As the years move on we learn that Kim’s family has many tragic endings as she loses her mother, sister and father for different reasons. Each death has a different impact on her and many of her ideals and relationships change as a result. Truths come out and Kim learns the secrets that have been hidden for so many years as her Aunt Marion relates the truth behind her relationship with her father and much more.
A circle has no beginning and no end as Kim finds out. Flashbacks to the past come full circle in the present as her thoughts and her department heads questions voice as The First Amendment is tested once again. Just what the end result is and how her life turns out you will have to take the ride on the Red Trolley Car yourself to find out what happens at the last stop. From 9/11 to the Bush Administration to 2006 when the same things started over again, just when will open thinking be aloud and just where does Kim wind up? The Red Car was the “spirit of freedom and unity and linked those in the Valle with the city beyond.” The ending will definitely surprise you and many more secrets and truths revealed as Kim learns that something’s never change and the world is still the same as it was when she was growing up but one thing does change: Her ideals, thoughts and goals. Keep Chasing those Red Cars and your path will remain solid. This is one book that provides much research about a many highly volatile periods in America’s history and that of many other countries when these Witch Hunts might have started in the 50’s but after 9/11 they continued front and center as you learn from the author and you hear Kim’s final thoughts when she receives an important letter. This is one book that everyone should read.
Fran Lewis: reviewer
Let’s give this book: FIVE RED TROLLEY CARS TO FREEDOM