Americans were innocent, in the '50s, we are often told. In the '50s, nice women like Donna Reed waited for their honest, hard-working husbands in modest homes on safe, tree-lines street. Their children learned to ride their bicycles and played games with the neighbor's kids--even after sunset. Trouble lay just under the surface, of course: people had to confront racism, McCarthyism and sexism; they built bomb shelters and thought about the Cold War. For the most part, though, these things remained submerged.
This is how Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin remembers the New York suburb Rockville Centre of her childhood in her memoir Wait Till Next Year. Though it outwardly embodies the popular conception of the '50s, this book doesn't tell the same old story. Goodwin reveals herself, not surprisingly, as a precocious child. From her ill, house-bound mother, she gained a love for books; from her oldest sister Charlotte, a sense of grace and style; and from Jeanne, the middle child, confidence and ambition. Her father taught her a love of baseball--especially of the Brooklyn Dodgers--and baseball became the theme music of her childhood.
"I had the luck to fall in love with baseball at the start of an era of pure delight for New York fans," she writes. "What a storied lineup my Dodgers had in the postwar seasons: Roy Campanella started behind the plate, Gil Hodges at first, Jackie Robinson at second, Pee Wee Reese at short, Billy Cox at third, Gene Hermanski in left, Duke Snider in center, and Carl Furillo in right...Never would there be a better time to be a Dodger fan."
Goodwin learned the game by keeping score in the red score books her father gave her. She listened to each game on the radio and kept meticulous notes so she could recount the game exactly to her father when he came home from work. He did not tell her for many years about the box scores in the newspaper, so she assumed her role as the household Dodgers record-keeper was absolutely vital. Even after she discovered the sports pages and after the games began to be televised, Goodwin held fast to her score books: thus, a historian was born.
Equal in importance to her love affair with baseball was Goodwin's quirky relationship with the Catholic Church. For a child, Goodwin was remarkably devout to the teachings of the Church. She won catechism contests by naming the Seven Deadly Sins and took the teaching of the Church as the last word on every issue. She often fell asleep during her long nightly prayers, for she was convinced that their length determined both the length of her stay in Purgatory and the success of the Dodgers.
Inevitably, though, Goodwin's attachment to baseball came into conflict with her strict Catholic regimen, with a gravity that could only be a child's. Goodwin's recollection of her First Confession is perhaps the most endearing scene in the book. "I wished harm to Allie Reynolds [the Yankee pitcher]," she tells the priest. "Yes, I wished that Enos Slaughter of the Cards would break his ankle, that Phil Rizzuto of the Yanks would fracture a rib, and that Alvin Dark of the Giants would hurt his knee...I wished all these injuries would go away once the baseball season ended." The priest, who it seems also loved baseball, gives her a light penance--and asks her to pray for the Dodgers.
Goodwin's tone is serious throughout: she treats her childish, five-year-old fears and reverence for Jackie Robinson with the same kind of gravity with which she later treats her perception of McCarthyism and the problems of adolescence. Bereft of landmarks that indicate change in maturity and voice, one never knows exactly how old Goodwin is at a given moment. On the other hand, growing up is indeed an invisible process--one is seldom conscious of growing older. Thus, the book's greatest problem is also that which lends it the most credibility.
Says Goodwin of writing the book, "The greatest pleasure...came from finding these kids on my block. Someone remembered the sound of screen doors slamming--that was our signal that someone had come over--and someone else remembered the sound of honking horns after the Rosenberg execution...This made me realize how much needs to be remembered and how much can be remembered when people are prompted."
Going back to Rockville Centre prompted Goodwin herself to remember the most important details--a method of recollection she was not unfamiliar with: "When I was working with Lyndon Johnson on his memoirs, he lived in a house one mile away from the house he grew up in," she said. "We'd often walk the mile to that house, and the physical impact of being there really affected the memoir...Physical immediacy becomes so important."
Goodwin explains in the book's introduction that she originally intended Wait Till Next Year to be the coming-of-age story of a Brooklyn Dodgers fan--a follow-up to her role in Ken Burns' documentary on baseball. Discovering her love for the Dodgers was inextricably entangled with her childhood as a whole, she realized that the story would have to take on a larger dimension. She set about the project, then, as any diligent historian would, collecting documents and photographing and contacting nearly everyone who lived in her neighborhood when she was a child. "My intention to write my baseball story was transformed into something different," she writes. "I would write my own history of growing up in the fifties--when my neighbors formed an extended family, when television was young, when the street was our common playground, when our lives seemed free from worry, until one remembered the sweeping fears of polio, communist subversion, and the atomic bomb that hung over our childhood days like low-lying clouds."
Goodwin says she was surprised at the difference between her usual historical research and the kind of personal research she did for this memoir. "I didn't suspect the emotional impact of the book...Since my parents died while I was so young, I really had no home in Rockville Centre; I did not have a place to go until the book."
Essentially, her book is a historical account of the '50s, with an honest recognition of the author's perspective. The '50s, were innocent, but perhaps only because people like Goodwin--who have now come of age as the storytellers of the '50s--were innocent at the time.