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book review

Author Sonja Larsen

When Sonja Larsen was a toddler, her father claims she was able to predict the suit on a card before he turned it over. Despite these early inklings of clairvoyance, there was no way she could be able to predict what would happen over the course of her life.

Red Star Tattoo tells the story of Larsen's transient childhood, zig-zagging across the continent from Milwaukee, Wis., to Hawaii to Montreal to California and back. Early on, she lived with her parents and older sister on a hippie commune outside Montreal, where the adults were so poor they ground acorns as a coffee substitute and smoked ersatz cigarettes rolled with sage leaves.

But the frigid Quebec winters quickly lost their appeal and the commune splintered, with most members packing up for the warmth and bounty of California. Eventually, her parents split up and her father moved back to Montreal to pursue work in the field of low-level drug dealing, while her mother volunteered with the innocuous-sounding California Homemakers Association, actually a clandestine recruiting wing for the Communist Party.

"My parents let me choose where I wanted to live, but I kept changing my mind, taking turns over which one of them I would disappoint," she writes.

The amount of freedom Larsen experienced as a child is truly mind-blowing. At the age of 8, she embarked on a cross-country hitchhiking trip with a man in his early 20s because "everyone knew that a kid was better than a dog or a woman for hitchhiking"; in Grade 8, she dropped out of school to help her mother with the Communist cause. "Choice was what our parents gave us when they had nothing else to give, not protection, not even sympathy," she writes.

When she was 16, she moved to Brooklyn, by herself, taking up residence at the National Office Central of the Communist Party USA, Provisional Wing, where a row of unassuming brownstones in Crown Heights secretly housed the operations of at least 100 people preparing for the Revolution Day of Feb. 18, 1984. The Provisional Wing was not affiliated with the Communist Party USA (they were considered sellouts) and turned out to be more of a cult than a political movement. The man giving out orders was a slick leader, with the oily sex appeal of Jim Jones and the raw magnetism of Charles Manson. Under the guise of revolution, Old Man, as he was called, exerted total control over his followers, once forcing Larsen to cook an egg seven times before she delivered the perfect sunny-side up.

Early on in her life, Larsen was taught about the duality of existence. A comrade explained dialectics to her as the struggle between opposing forces. Night and day. Hot and cold. Communism and capitalism. "They are always changing, one to the other. Water to steam and back again." Her mother told her, "When the revolution comes, everyone will have to pick a side."

If life is a struggle between opposing forces, then Larsen was caught in the middle between embracing her Drew Barrymore flower-child existence and seeking a more "normal" life. But everything about her was caught in a liminal state, halfway between the boiling water and the steam. Entering her world is like staring through a kaleideoscope where the bright colours shift to reveal a new pattern, even when your eyes think they've adjusted to the last.

I picked up the book in an afternoon and – each page turned in steady anticipation – did not put it down until I was finished. Larsen's story is engrossing, and at times unbelievable. She uses sweeping and poetic language to mask the deeply disturbing nature of the book – as an adolescent, she was molested by her mother's boyfriend, and wondered if her experience was actually damaging or just something the straight world gets upset about, like skinny dipping or smoking dope – and the prose lopes along steadily, smoothing out all of the jagged edges left by the story itself.

If the purpose of a memoir is for the author to come to terms with their own existence, then Red Star Tattoo is a catharsis. It's the act of Larsen coming to terms with her commie mommy, her drug-dealer dad and an upbringing so socially unconventional, it veers on the border of child abuse.

While living among fellow Communist cult members as a teenager, Larsen glimpsed a red star tattoo on the shoulder of one of her comrades. Years later, she reflected on how she wished she'd gotten the tattoo, if not to show her commitment to the cause, then as evidence that phase of her life actually happened. A tattoo can be a reminder, a symbol that seeks poignancy in its permanence. But, then again, so can a memoir.

Isabel B. Slone is a writer from Toronto. Her work has appeared in Flare, Fashion, Hazlitt and the Hairpin.

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