Abby's Reviews > In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World

In the Country of Brooklyn by Peter Golenbock
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Nov 01, 2011

really liked it

This huge (704 pages) book at first glance appears to be yet another nostalgic memoir or compendium of reminiscences of famous people who were born in Brooklyn. But Golenbock is after something much more ambitious and the result is a wonderful book that will interest those with little or no connection to Brooklyn.

Virtually every examination of Brooklyn takes as its starting point the diversity evidenced in the fact that one in seven Americans can trace his or her family back to this densely populated 70-square-mile borough that was once a rural suburb of New York City. Golenbock zooms in further, taking as his theme the fight for equality and social justice waged by the myriad ethnic groups, political activists and other victims of discrimination and oppression that have called Brooklyn home.

Through dozens of interviews with ordinary – and often extraordinary – people, the book delves into just about every important social movement and upheaval of the 20th century – labor, civil rights, urban decay, white flight, rock and roll, baseball, gentrification and more. The Brooklyn Dodgers figure prominently as a unifying passion for Brooklynites of every stripe and Jackie Robinson appears often as the personification of the fight for human dignity.

The book comes alive in the narratives of the people who were there, who tell the stories of teachers who lost their jobs to political witch-hunts, of a baseball idol who responds to a sick child and remembers him many years later, of youngsters who resisted the lure of drugs and gangs and rose to positions in which they could help their communities, of a musically talented kid who made it big, a fireman on 9/11, a real estate developer with a vision, an artist with a lifelong commitment to political activism and many more. I'm one who was there. My neighborhood, my block, my schools, even my summer camp for the children of left-wing parents…they’re all here. I lived a few blocks from Ebbets Field, idolized Jackie Robinson (and still hate the Yankees), was taught not to divulge my family’s political leanings during the McCarthy years, saw the neighborhoods crumble, eventually left and watched in wonder 25 years later as my daughter moved to the very neighborhood we had fled. How could I not love this book?

Those who don’t have that emotional connection and who don’t share Golenbock’s biases may see it differently. The connective narrative he supplies is often fascinating, ranging widely over topics like the history of Coney Island, the roots of the Ku Klux Klan, the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, the experiences of African-Americans in the military, the Communist scare of the 1940s and 1950s, and the struggle for community control of schools. But along with the historical record (some of it supported by notes at the end of the book) is a fair amount of editorializing. The author’s point of view is demonstrated also in the choice of interview subjects. There is no attempt to represent the views of those who, say, believed that teachers who harbored left-wing sentiments should be kept out of the classroom.

Golenbock didn’t set out to produce a “fair and balanced” history or a collection of nostalgia and I’m grateful that he didn’t. He has made Brooklyn the lens through which we can examine many of the most important social movements of our times and he has shown my home town to have been a hotbed of activism in pursuit of the American ideal. And you thought Brooklyn was all about a bridge, stickball, egg creams and Dem Bums? Fugheddaboudit!
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