By: Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton
Reviewed by: Rebecca Dempsey
NewSouth Books, 2009
Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton’s book is more than a memoir; it is a narrative complete with interesting characters and rich historical detail. Teddy’s Child: Growing Up in the Anxious Southern Gentry Between the Great Wars is about the failures and accomplishments of the author’s eccentric family, but the themes extend beyond Hamilton’s family to comment on the struggles of humanity: the dreams individuals reach to possess and the nobility, and at times futility, of that effort.
The Van der Veer family settled in Birmingham in the 1920s, when it was a bustling town of streetcars and home to the largest Ku Klux Klan klavern. Hamilton’s portrayal of this past era will provoke nostalgia in readers who remember it and a vicarious pleasure in those who do not. The family rode streetcar number twenty-five past the fires of Sloss Furnace to see movies at the Alabama Theater, where they gazed in astonishment at one bedroom, separated by a hanging blanket, shared by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. They shopped in Pizitz department store, often seeing “Mr. Louis Pizitz himself, who came South as a peddler with a pack on his back, pacing the aisles like an aging lion, his head with its shock of white hair clearly visible above the counters.”
The dichotomous nature of the personalities and habits of the Van der Veer family is sometimes comical. Virginia’s aunt, Elizabeth, slaved laboriously in her efforts to write romances for the pulps, while never having a real love affair of her own. Virginia’s genteel mother, Dorothy, who thought it common to address people as “sir” or “ma’am,” wore the same threadbare winter coat for years but always kept a staff of two servants to do yard and house work.
Hamilton’s idealistic father Ted, a newspaper editor for The Birmingham News, is the pivotal character. He kept an extensive library, read philosophy, and was plagued by an unreasonable anxiety throughout his life, which led to two nervous breakdowns. He turned down the bonus offered by the government to World War I veterans because he had joined the Navy not for money, but to serve his country. ”No one can corrupt me but myself” was the maxim he lived by. At the very heart of Hamilton’s memoir is her desire to create a memorial to her father.
Absorbing from start to finish, Hamilton’s book will be interesting not only to students of Alabama history, but to all who love a good story. Nov 2009
Rebecca Dempsey is an adjunct instructor of English at the University of Montevallo and Jefferson State Community College.