Heir to rebellion
Reviewed by Tess Taylor
A Radical Line
One Family's Century of Conscience: The Story of the Radical Movement in America
By Thai Jones
FREE PRESS; 321 Pages; $26
Until the day that the FBI surrounded the apartment 4-year-old Thai Jones shared with his parents, he thought he had a normal family. While the fact that they operated under aliases might have been strange to someone slightly older, to Thai, who was called Timmy at school, it was simply a way of life. Yet when the FBI came in, the truth came out: Jones' family, however loving, was also deeply subversive -- and wanted.
In "A Radical Line," Jones exhumes the history of his family, three generations of protesters who worked against the mainstream, for causes they believed in. One grandfather, Albert Jones, was a conscientious objector and spent World War II enduring local scorn and hard labor in a "conchie" camp. Jones' other grandfather, Arthur Stein, was a Communist leader in Washington who maintained both his "deep underground" communism and a series of posts inside the U.S. government during the rise of McCarthyism.
Annie Stein, Jones' grandmother, was a daughter of Eastern European Jews who began her career as a socialist organizer during the Great Depression, attended the 1934 May Day parade and spent the 1950s leading picket lines in front of lunch counters to desegregate Washington, D.C. After giving a public speech stating her communist sympathies, she was followed by the FBI for decades.
Jones' parents in their turn embraced another generation's struggle. As the Vietnam War escalated, his parents, Eleanor Raskin and Jeffery Jones, joined the militant movement and became two wanted Weather Underground operatives. Jones later fled into the woods of the deep underground.
While it may often seem that such struggles are isolated, Jones' story attempts to show how they are related, literally. His family tree attempts to link individual American struggles to a wider, ongoing thread of American protest. Every decade's struggles take its own shape, and Jones is able to use his family relations to encapsulate the difficult divisions between the causes and tactics of older and younger generations of radicals. There's the gulf between Albert Jones, the committed pacifist, and his son Jeff, who refutes peaceful protest in favor of violence. There's also the sometimes uneasy, sometimes fruitful relationship between Annie Stein and her daughter and new son-in-law: The dedicated Communist organizer donates her time even as she is scornful of hippies for deserting "the real" battle.
At its best, Jones' well-researched account peppers family tales with newspaper snippets and bits of dialogue from all kinds of protests and legal hearings, salting them with a wry humor. Jones' account of his grandfather's time as an underground Communist in the 1950s is particularly sly:
"The Communist underground must have been the most boring clandestine organization in political history. Unlike most other secret cadres that existed to carry out some illegal revolutionary campaign, the Communists in Washington stayed underground simply in order to stay underground. ... Week after week the menacing Reds subjected one another to endless conversations, which, in a room full of theoretical Marxists, could get oppressive fast. They bickered and pursued each other's wives."
Jones' family is certainly not made up of theoretical activists. The Jones/ Stein/Raskin line fought long and hard against the grain of the mainstream and found itself ostracized and isolated for large sections of their lives. Jones also documents how the rifts with culture that drew his relations together sometimes pulled them apart as well, as a commitment to fighting for a cause, by whatever means necessary, impresses its own tension on family ties. Albert Jones' commitment to pacifism strains his marriage, and neither Jones' father, nor his grandfather, was present for the birth of his son.
Yet for all his work to chronicle the nuances of rebellion, Jones' account of family activism sometimes seems less richly personal than it might. All the revolutionary names, hippie landmarks and rogue plots seem to leave very little space for interior thoughts or reflective prose. His characters show up heroically for the battles, but at times it is hard to figure out how they feel about fighting them. It's hard to know what, other than sheer stubborn will, motivates his characters into the ambivalent and uncomfortable complexities of choosing the strange life of a radical. At times, Jones' protesting characters seem rather dutifully plunked down in uncomfortable positions in front of stage-set picket lines, and it is difficult to remember the scope of the causes they are fighting for.
The chapters on Jones' militant parents are the most vivid and intense, probably because Raskin and Jones are still alive, and because Jones grew up with their rich tales of "the days of rage." In the end, sweeping yet detailed historical prose leaves a lot of personal detail to inference, and Jones doesn't speculate much one way or another about how radical parents might influence the lives of their radical children. But if Jones doesn't say much about what it was like to go on growing up with such parents in the mellower years after the F.B.I arrived, it is clear that his book stands by them. " I went out into the hallway to where my father was manacled, slid my small fingers around the cold cuffs of his palm, and stood with him in the corridor, holding hands," he writes. "This is my earliest memory."