September 12, 2010

New “Family Memoir” Portrays Enduring Quest for Meaning in America

FROM THE DECAPITATION OF A MIGRANT LABORER to the exertions of his great-grandchildren nearly a century later, a newly released book chronicles the true story of an American family and their unrelenting quest for meaning and a sense of belonging in America.

The product of ten years of historical and genealogical research, Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century recounts how this family of Italian and Polish ancestry struggle with immigration, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, Watergate, gay liberation, the AIDS epidemic, and the women’s movement.

“I like to call the book a family memoir,” said first-time author John Paul Godges, of Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not about me or my interpretations of things. It’s about overlapping interpretations of the same periods in American history. All of these contrasting interpretations inform the others, just like what happens in a big family.”

The book is “inspiring and engaging,” said Stacy Coyle, a lecturer of American and environmental studies at the University of Denver. “In addition to subtly engaging you in some of the major events in American history over the last century, Oh, Beautiful will inspire you to recover your own family’s secrets and gems.”

Godges and his siblings grew up in a big Catholic family in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, mostly in Redondo Beach, California. He portrays his Polish immigrant U.S. Marine Corps father and emotionally effusive Italian mother as polar opposites. “He’s always been the rugged individualist,” said Godges, “but she’s always been the communitarian.”

The author and his five siblings embodied the conflicting social movements of their times as well, he said. “We’ve got an Oliver North among us, a Hillary Clinton among us, a mentally ill sister, a jock brother, a lesbian rocker, and a gay male activist. Or at least we once reflected those stereotypes.” Godges was an AIDS buddy and gay activist in San Francisco in the 1980s.

“The book is partly about what divides us, but it’s mostly about the resolution of family conflicts and how difficult that can be,” he continued. “We’re all in this country together. Immigrants and natives. Gays and straights. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Conservatives and liberals. We’re all part of the same American family, but it’s so hard for us to figure each other out. I figured I’d start with my own family by writing this book, and maybe that could help other families, too.”

The events in the book present “constant challenges and the constant reinterpretation of family and faith,” said Coyle, of the University of Denver, who gave the book a five-star Amazon rating. “In an age where 16-year-olds are publishing best sellers about warring dragons and teen vampires, it is incredibly refreshing to read something so well written.”

Godges received a bachelor’s degree in American studies from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in journalism from U.C. Berkeley, and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University. He works at the Santa Monica–based RAND Corporation as editor-in-chief of its flagship magazine, RAND Review, a position he has held since 1998.

His parents are Joseph and Ida Godges, who were raised in immigrant enclaves in Michigan and Iowa, respectively, and who were founding members of Saint Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church in Redondo Beach in the 1950s. They now reside in Seal Beach, California, where Joseph Godges entered a nursing home last year. “That compelled me to self-publish the book sooner rather than any other way later,” said the author.