In the Radical Nursery

How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories

Dorothy Gallagher
Random House, 187 pp., $22.95

A few fierce sentences into the title chapter of Dorothy Gallagher’s memoir, readers might be forgiven that sinking feeling of being spectators at yet another act of literary revenge by a grown child with a grievance. Gallagher’s parents are in their early nineties, living in a jury-rigged house in upstate New York with a wood-burning stove (her father removed the hot water heater a year earlier—too expensive) and a feces-smeared bathroom. Her mother—“the woman was certified senile,” Gallagher tells us, just “a heap of rags” slumped in her chair—can’t take two steps without falling. No nurse lasts more than a few days. “This house is very dangerous to work in. The man is a very bad man I think he’s mad,” writes one of the nurses (“not the one who refused to masturbate him, or she would have mentioned it,” Gallagher adds helpfully). “His daughter lives in the city. She’s a very nice person but he treats her bad.” Gallagher thinks there’s a million dollars hidden in the mattress; her father thinks the young con man he keeps writing checks to is going to triple his money in real estate. So the very nice daughter hires a lawyer and a judge makes her her father’s conservator. “My father couldn’t believe it,” she writes. “The look he gave me! Bitter hatred.”

If this story reads like opening arguments for a full-scale literary prosecution, it soon becomes apparent that Gallagher has an interesting twist on the usual filial complaints. A year after her parents’ deaths, she collects her father’s “cremains” from the funeral parlor (her mother’s are in an urn on the closet floor, jumbled among the shoes) and sets about considering the evidence. First, there’s the old photograph of her parents in the hazy time before she was born, “young and darkly sexy,” apparently in love. (Except for that story about the time her mother ran off to Canada, something to do with another woman…) Other chapters sketch out a portrait of an immigrant family, often by means of their artifacts. There’s Cousin Meyer’s suicide note, describing the family’s hardscrabble origins in rural Ukraine, and the revolutionary ideology they carried with them to the New World. There’s the poignant letter Gallagher’s mother writes to her night-school typing teacher, describing her buried grief after the death of a sister. There’s the story of Aunt Lily’s savings bond, locked tight in the family safe, and the family’s efforts to keep her sad-sack husband’s hands off it. And scattered throughout are inklings of how Gallagher herself grew, from Red Diaper baby to directionless “good-for-nothing” to serious writer, capable of performing precise emotional surgery on her own family, with elegantly astringent literary style as the only ether.

Gallagher’s book belongs to the subgenre of memoirs about growing up Jewish, bookish, leftish, and working-class in America in the first half of the …

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