When Joseph Lelyveld was six years old it occurred to him that he was less important to his parents than he wanted to be, that they might even think him a nuisance. That summer—it was 1943—he found himself living with a farm family of Seventh-Day Adventists in rural Nebraska. Though he was Jewish and his father a rabbi, he spent Saturday mornings in the basement of a country church taking religious instruction in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.
His memory of this has the bizarre quality of dreaming: his family is “somewhere else, far away.” He doesn’t know why he is here, or why he must learn “a second religion.” It is not quite a nightmare, but soon he will incorporate the memory and come to think of the summer of 1943 as a formative moment in his life. It came to stand for the moment he “inexplicably became a burden to my parents.”
Time’s passing only heightened his sense of having been abandoned that summer. As he grew older he sometimes pretended to be kidding his parents with light banter about the time they “abandoned” him on the farm. “But, of course, I wasn’t kidding,” he writes. Even after childhood was behind him, he continued to use the word “abandoned” in talking to his parents, “out of lingering grievance or spite.”
All this seems familiar territory: “Ah yes,” we think, “another childhood memoir of insensitive parents leaving children psychically mutilated.” But Lelyveld is not so quickly understood. What we have here is a memoirist who distrusts memory, especially his own. Pondering a cherished old memory—the cruel abandonment of 1943, say—his immediate instinct is to investigate it. This sometimes makes Omaha Blues feel less like a memoir than an investigative report on the cunning game with which Lelyveld’s treacherous memory has been distorting his understanding of his own life.
His investigation of that summer on a Nebraska farm has been extensive. It included visits as an adult to the scene of the memory. There he walked the ground again and interviewed surviving members of the family he had lived with. The report on his findings is reminiscent of Proust’s account of his forgotten childhood world suddenly reappearing, full and intact in his mind, under the magical taste of a small cake dipped in tea.
Returned to the scene of his Nebraska exile, the adult Lelyveld is flooded with happy memories of a farm boy’s summer: milking a cow by hand, the taste of warm bread fresh from the oven, pumping the household water at a rusting windmill, the two-holer outhouse, a pigpen, the beheading of chickens destined for the pot, kerosene lamps at twilight on a landscape still not electrified, a scalding August day of old-fashioned country communalism when crowds of neighbors descend to help with the threshing of the oats and revel in the harvest picnic feast.
Barely launched in a tale of childhood desolation, he realizes that memory has …
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