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Laurie Lewis

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

In 1934, when Laurie Lewis was 4, she could (easily) be persuaded to stand on a chair and perform for her parents and their friends. Her opening shtick was an imitation of Carmen Miranda singing and waving her hips about. Chicky-chicky boom, chicky boom. "And the other thing I did, still standing up on the chair, was recite the opening of the Communist Manifesto. … 'Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.' I'd lift up my fist on the word unite! Everyone would laugh, applaud. I liked that."

Her parents were members of the Communist Party in 1930s Calgary, a legal affiliation until Russia and Germany signed a non-aggression pact in August, 1939, forcing Canadian Communists to go into hiding. Laurie and her brother, Andy, had to keep political secrets as well as the darker secret that their father was in the habit of drunkenly beating them for nothing more wicked than being exuberant children. Andy, in particular, was painfully paid back for standing up for himself. Laurie, a more clever and subtle child, learned to hide, to observe, to be a good little girl.

Laurie Lewis is now 80, and hasn't lost the talent for ironic juxtapositions that she demonstrated on that long-ago night in 1934. This gift, along with her ability to be an uncanny observer, animates Little Comrades, her first book. Unforgettable details bring the Great Depression and Second World War to life (the "tadpole sort of doll" her mother, Ellen, makes for her when she finds a piece of cloth and ties a string around it; the glimpse of her father and one of the other comrades digging a deep hole in the back garden of a safe house, then lowering a sack of forbidden books down into it because the comrades have been tipped off that they'll have to go underground).

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When the children discover a cave built into a hill near the house of Mrs. Sketchley, their temporary mother while their parents are in hiding, they dig ledges for sitting on, then make books out of folded-up paper. Andy writes messages in the books in a secret code in case anyone finds them. "It was like our own underground where we could share our parents' lives, the spiders and centipedes, the damp and fragrant earth," Lewis writes, "even though we didn't know where they were."

Years later, after Andy goes off to sea ("like Jack London"), time speeds up, and good things begin to happen as Ellen gets involved in theatre in Vancouver. Laurie dances and sings in her mother's revues and together they dream of going to New York. "Agitprop" Laurie writes, "comes from agitation and propaganda, I know that now. But at the time I thought it had something to do with having very few props."

Ellen and Laurie make their great escape from Laurie's father in 1946, arriving at Grand Central Station with two boxy brown plaid suitcases, no money and no idea where they will live. Life is unpredictable and their survival often depends on the kindness of strangers, but Ellen quickly finds work and makes close friends on the left and in the arts. They eat at the Horn & Hardart Automat, its walls lined with food displayed in compartments "like glass mailboxes." Laurie gets a job, as an usherette at a movie house on Eighth Street "right off the Avenue of the Americas," wears a uniform with silver buttons, serves espresso to moviegoers on weekends.

Dorothy Parker, who is very shy, is coaxed into talking to Ellen's writers' group one evening when they're meeting in their studio over a flower shop. Ellen later tells Laurie that Parker had "a self-deprecating kind of humour." Which leads Laurie Lewis to write in Little Comrades, "I knew what self-deprecating was. A way of insulting yourself before someone else did."

Music is also everywhere in New York on these exhilarating postwar days and nights, arias from operas and jazz pouring from open windows as Laurie begins to distance herself from her close bond with her mother. Which makes the collision of the personal and the political that occurs at the end of this remarkable memoir so grand and electric.

Elisabeth Harvor's most recent novel is All Times Have Been Modern. Her most recent poetry book is An Open Door in the Landscape.

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