Before Tom Brokaw became one of America's most famous anchormen, he was a kid with white bucks and a ducktail trying to make his mark in the hardscrabble world of South Dakota, circa 1950. "A Long Way From Home" details that journey in a thorough if bloodless kind of way.
Published in 2002, shortly after his similarly rootsy appreciation tome "The Greatest Generation" became a mega-bestseller, "A Long Way From Home" seems to ride the coattails of that success. It recites facts from the author's boyhood, pleasant and otherwise, without much subjective sense of what it was like to have lived though them.
Instead you get pages and pages of platitudes, as if from an Oscar speech gone awry: "Time and distance have sharpened my understanding of the forces that shaped my parents' lives and mine so enduringly. These forces are the grid on which I've come to rely, in good times and bad."
That's stiff enough even for an introduction, but the book continues like that for all of its 200-plus pages. At least they are wide-type, double-spaced pages, with photos showing a young Tommy looking not unlike Charlie Brown's long-lost pal Shermy. Yet narrative padding makes a slow-moving read even slower. Often he pauses from a brief story to explain a life lesson learned, or just bask in how far he has come. At times, Brokaw even catalogues various global events in a given year, like the fall of the Peron regime or the introduction of the Chrysler.
"America was booming, but that was of little comfort to 12-year-old Red Brokaw," he writes of his father. About one boyhood town, "Ravinia was a snapshot of America in transition from the party-line telephone system to rotary dial; from kerosene lamps to full electrical power..." After a while, I stopped hearing his resonant tones in my mind, and started hearing another Midwestern broadcasting legend, WJM's Ted Baxter.
A good memoir gives you a sense of what the people around the author were like, rather than what values they imparted on young Tom. Except for a few instances, bits of detail about teasing drunks, shoveling snow with a snaggle-toothed Swede, or waiting on a pair of down-and-out boxers, he seems content to skim the surface, surveying his life rather than examining it.
He does offer some amusing anecdotes, though they feel more like filled-out cocktail-party banter than anything introspective. One of his early college radio interviews was with that year's new Miss South Dakota, whom he greeted quite unintentionally as "honey". He was teased pretty good about it later, though it didn't hurt him as he wound up not only keeping his job but marrying Miss South Dakota.
Pain wasn't a stranger to Brokaw, but it could have been much worse. Brokaw is frank and somewhat humble, in his self-important way, in acknowledging this point. Did adult success make for a dull boy? I don't think so; I believe Brokaw's youth had a good memoir in it. But this wasn't it. Unless you are a Brokaw fan or have a deep, specific interest in the Midwest at mid-century, this is not worth your time.
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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