Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America

Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America

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Home Fires is the powerful saga of the Gordon family—real people, names unchanged. Spanning nearly five decades, from the end of World War II to the early 1990s, their story has the scope, depth, wealth of incident, and emotional intensity of a great novel, and an abundance of humor, scandal, warmth, and trauma—the recognizable components of family life. In the hands of Donald Katz, it is also a masterful chronicle of the turbulent postwar era, brilliantly illuminating the interplay between private life and profound cultural changes.

Katz begins his account in 1945, when Sam Gordon, an electrician, comes home from the war to his young wife, Eve, eager to move his family into the growing middle class and the good life that beckons all around them. As the fifties yield to the sixties, the younger Gordons begin to fly out and away into the culture like shrapnel from an artillery shell, each tracing a unique trajectory. Katz charts the unraveling of Sam's and Eve's American Dream, to the slow, hopeful reknitting of the family. Deftly juxtaposing day-to-day family life with landmark public events, Katz creates a rich and revealing portrait of the second half of the twentieth century in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941729021
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
Publication date: 12/30/2014
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 640
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Donald Katz is founder and CEO of Audible, Inc., the leading provider of premium digital spoken audio information and entertainment on the Internet. Prior to founding Audible, Katz was a journalist and author for twenty years; his work won a National Magazine Award, an Overseas Press Club Award, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, among other prizes.

Katz graduated from New York University in 1974, where he studied with novelist Ralph Ellison. Mr. Katz is married, the father of three children, and an avid ice hockey player.

Jonathan Alter is an author, journalist,and television commentator. Since 1983, he has been a correspondent and columnist for Newsweek. He is also an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, where he appears three or four times a week. Alter is the author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope , a national bestseller, and The Promise: President Obama, Year One , which went to number four on the New York Times bestseller list and was named one of the one hundred "Notable Books of the Year" by the Times. He is also the author of Between the Lines: A View Inside American Politics, Media and Culture , a collection of his Newsweek columns. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, Emily Lazar, a producer for The Colbert Report , and their three children, Charlotte, Tommy and Molly.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Staff Sergeant Samuel Goldenberg walked down the gangplank of his Liberty Ship in the first week of November 1945, during a pre-Christmas homecoming crush occasioned by the fact that a soldier was returning from Europe every five seconds of the day.President Roosevelt and General Marshall, and then the new president, Truman, had all agreed that a point system was the fairest way to bring the soldiers home. A point was awarded for each month a soldier had served, five points for each campaign, five points for being a father. Eighty-five points was said to be a ticket home. Sam had 136 points to his name the day the Reich fell, but as every soldier knew by that time, the army was run as much by exception as by the rule. Sam was ordered to the supply lines leading into Frankfurt, Germany, for five months while many more than a million others went home before him.

Sam easily balanced his heavy barracks bag on his shoulder with one hand. He kept patting his front pocket with the other, as if to reassure himself that he was not only home alive three months short of his twenty-seventh birthday but home flush with a stake, thanks to the uncanny consistency with which a pair of dice kept coming to rest between the exposed girders of a lower deck of the Liberty Ship. He was wearing twelve hundred dollars in that front pocket, more than he'd made through an entire childhood of hard work and the beginning of his apprenticeship as an electrician. Sam inflected "hard work" as "hard woik." At mid-century his Bowery Boys accent was still shared with considerable pride by movie stars, college professors, novelists, and many other urban tough kids madegood.

Sam bulled through the crowd and hailed a taxi. The cab motored north through the warm autumn day as he groped for feelings appropriate to being back home alive from a terrible war. By the time the cab crossed into familiar neighborhoods, Sam—"one tough hombre from the Bronx," as some of his army buddies called him—was breathless in the back seat, nearly panting under the weight of fear. Home alive and flush with a stake, he kept thinking, patting the splayed silver money clip in his front pocket. Back home alive with a stake, married to a girl I haven't seen since 1943...father of a child I've never seen at all.Sam pressed into the strong springs under the taxi seat, thinking back into the war and wondering if he had ever experienced such terror under fire.

Sam would always refuse to turn the Second World War into dinner table allegory. He wouldn't sugarcoat it, and he wasn't sure how to make sense of it, so he left the war stories untold. As a result, one of his daughters, the second-born—Lorraine—would believe many years later that Sam's job during the war was carrying the mangled and the dead from battlefields. It wasn't clear how this had come to Lorraine, but it served her as an explanation of why her father seemed unable to miss a single television show featuring a Nazi, and why he often seemed injured by things Lorraine couldn't quite see. Sam's decision not to speak of the war fostered many apocryphal assumptions about his experiences overseas. It turned his war into a highly decorated family myth.

Over the years Sam occasionally wondered, silently—secretly, his wife and his children would contend—at how much easier it was to talk to his family about his childhood poverty on the Lower East Side than it was to tell them an appropriate war story. For some reason the lessons born of surviving the Depression came back as stories about life, while Sam's vivid recollections of war came back as absurd illustrations of how suddenly people can die. He figured these were stories a family couldn't use.

Of the forty million lives lost in World War II, Sergeant Samuel Goldenberg returned home quite sure he would always remember the end of more than a few. He would never forget a single thing about the sight, sound, or even the strangely acrid smell of a monster German V-bomb falling upon the twelve-hundred-year-old Belgian town of Liege. An entire square block of the ancient city rose as a single piece not twenty feet from where Sam stood in a cobbled street. The great chunk of Liege—full of Gothic spires and quaint homes and children—unfurled before him like a picnic blanket hovering above a square of earth. Then, within what seemed to be a tiny fraction of an instant, the entire block at Sam's feet collapsed into dust and screams.

How could you tell somebody what that was like—especially your own kids? How could you ever figure out what it was supposed to mean?

What could it possibly benefit others, Sam wondered, to know how it felt when you learned that all your friends in your original infantry division were killed on the beach at Peleliu Island in the fall of 1944—after you were transferred out to Europe? Japanese soldiers garrisoned at Peleliu were ensconced in a dense honeycomb of deep caves; they hid behind walls made of oil drums filled with powdered coral. American planes dropped great belly tanks of a new compound called napalm. An infantryman was sent up the rise to explode the tanks with a phosphorus shell, setting much of the top of Peleliu Island and even the coral on fire.

But the guys in Sam's old unit never made it off the beach. Most of them were New York City boys too, tough Hell's Kitchen Irishmen, born at the rough edge of one island and killed at the tropical edge of another.

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Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
FlatlanderJM More than 1 year ago
Here is a well-written book that you will find hard to put down. This is the true story of a family that moved to the NYC suburbs in the early 1950s, to a brand-new subdivision, looking for a "normal" life. Each child grew up and went off in dramatically different directions. Even if this is not your era, you can no doubt identify with one or more members of the Gordon family. The foreword and afterword bring the book up to date (this is a reissue).