Book Review

A review of "Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca" from the Communist History Network Newsletter, Spring 2003. This newletter is published in Manchester, England

June Levine and Gene Gordon, Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca: Blacks, Whites and Reds at Camp, San Rafael (California), Avon Springs Press, 2002, ISBN 0-9717435-0-9.

 On one level, this book is straightforward to describe. It's mainly a collection of reminiscences collected recently from Americans who spent part of their childhood summer vacations at a camp called Wo-Chi-Ca, woven around an account of the camp's history.


Though its name, perhaps consciously, suggested a 'Red Indian' chant, it actually stood for Workers Children's Camp, and it was primarily run through the International Workers Order (IWO) — a relatively broad organisation, linked to the Communist Party of the USA, which was a central vehicle for Popular Front politics in the States. The camp ran from 1934 to the early fifties, on the site of a farm bought by the IWO at the height of the depression in rural New Jersey, south of New York. Every summer, hundreds of city children came out to spend time — a week or two, sometimes a whole vacation — living together in simple wooden huts or under canvas, sharing the chores, taking part in sports and concerts, and joining in political discussions. 

 The letters and e-mails collated by the enthusiastic authors of this book show that a remarkable, enjoyable and progressive culture was developed and nurtured by Wo-Chi-Ca. The whole book is full of memories of happy days, challenging and confidence-building activities, and good friendships between children from different racial groups.  There are stories, too, about the hardly-paid staff and dedicated volunteers who ran the camp, recounting how these young adults were an inspiration to the children, both for their skills in sport, or dance, or art, and through their style in relating to the children and to each other. Many contributors also reminisce about celebrated visitors to the camp, amongst whom Paul Robeson was most prominent. The singer visited every year from 1940 until shortly before the camp's demise, and raised money towards a purpose-built recreation hall on site.   

 All these positive stories, page after page, chapter after chapter, build up a strong sense of how much the contributors got out of their Wo-Chi-Ca days. Scattered amongst the accounts are plenty of facts and anecdotes which will enrich any reader's knowledge and understanding of the American communist movement and wider left in Popular Front days and the 1940s. But these are not ordered, much less indexed. The book's sense of childhood excitement is reinforced by the sometimes jumbled and repetitive use of material, a chatty, non-academic writing style, and by the scrapbook-style use of photos, illustrations, poems, songs with music, and reproductions of camp ephemera.


As the dusk jacket quotes from folk singer Pete Seeger and others make clear, the effect of all this is to 'rekindle the spirit' and give a sense of the 'flavour' and 'feeling' of Wo-Chi-Ca. But some readers, even those sympathetic to the causes the camp promoted and organised around, will sometimes find the tone of the book a little cloying. The authors themselves notice and reflect, at page 231, that they 'run the risk' of producing 'a vanity book or an in-group chronicle'. Indeed.

 And the defensive and inconsistent reactions to the rare criticisms of the camp which are reported add to the danger of the book being overly celebratory. An entirely plausible anecdote about a girl being bullied by other children on the pretext that her father was a 'capitalist' because he owned a gas station is treated as if it is a damaging anti-communist slander. It is actually evidence that the children who came to Wo-Chi-Ca were real kids, who'd find available 'reasons' to tease and taunt each other, even though the staff were — quite effectively, it's clear — working to build up standards of tolerance, respect and responsibility.

 Overall, the book presents clear evidence of why the grown-old children of American communists and left wingers in the 1930s and 1940s have good cause to be defensive of the value of what they had, and helps us understand why they regret so much its passing. The story of the demise of the camp is told with great dignity: the effects of the anti-communist Smith Act and wider cold war hysteria; the armed attacks on the camp and on Robeson's concerts by brutal right wing 'patriotic' thugs; the regrettable but understandable defensive reactions of parents holding back from sending their children, and of camp organisers, weakly changing its name to Wyandot for the last couple of years. The final blow to the camp, in the political context of the end of the Korean War, and the judicial murder of the Rosenbergs, was the all too personal event of the death of a young girl camper from polio, and resultant concern on the part of parents and camp organisers about the risk of a wider epidemic.

 What was lost as Marian Cuca was buried and the camp abandoned was a set of dreams and possibilities about the kind of America these children could have grown up in. Perhaps this is most well illustrated by the lived commitment to anti-racism and integration which the camp organised around. The left wing families who spontaneously wanted to send their children were from Jewish, Irish, Italian, Polish and Slavic backgrounds. But the organisers took pro-active steps to reach out to Black communities, particularly through Harlem based voluntary organisations, inviting them to send their children to a camp 'where integration and equality were guaranteed … [S]o successful were these pioneers of affirmative action that by 1943 (when most of the big city was lily-white and Harlem chiefly Black) Wo-Chi-Ca could count one Black child in every group of five campers'. 

 A careful reading of the book raises interesting issues about the success and extent of the integration. It's clear that many camp friendships between Jewish and Black children were not sustained back in 'the big city' (though many children would look forward to meeting their summer camp friends again next time). And there is much to reflect on in the fact that nearly all accounts here are of white children stating their appreciation of the opportunity to meet Black children.

 But anything less than respect and appreciation of this aspect of the work of Wo-Chi-Ca would be out of order. Like other strands of Wo-Chi-Ca, it was carried through into the progressive movements of the sixties, with camp graduates playing significant roles in the civil rights movement, anti-war activity and a wider range of left wing and progressive work.

 The connections which contributors make between their childhood activities and aspects of their later lives confirm that this book is really most interesting as an example of a collective act of memory and affirmation of important personal values which the cohort of contributors have held through their lifetimes. There is, however, hardly any careful or critical reflection on the psychological processes of memory and value-affirmation which the book focuses and expresses. Perhaps this is linked to the fact that this reviewer finds it more difficult to describe and unpick this quality in the book, as compared to its relatively simple historical account it offers. It is, anyway, unfair, to expect such critical reflexivity from authors who breathlessly conclude by telling us that their next book will be 'about Shakespeare and hot springs and chess and movies and music and all we love about life'.

 On the strength of this book, we can predict that this projected volume will win no prizes for rigorous structure, and that footnotes will be few and far between. But it will be enjoyable, direct, engaging and suffused with progressive values and the joy of living. And, in these times, who can complain about any of that?

 Martin Willis

 The reviewer was a youth worker in Lancashire and Merseyside in the 1980s and 1990s.  Photographs of Wo-Chi-Ca camp, recent reunions, and relevant links can be found on the internet at www.wo-chi-ca.org.