With an easy, conversational grace, Carolyn See carries off a great literary feat. She links the story of her family to the story of the American dream. Repeatedly throughout her memoirs, she links the stories of members of her family to the social history of the United States. For example, she writes: “Drugs and drink deaden the disappointments of American life. In some countries . . . a house painter never entertains the thought of a lovely home, money in the bank, a thriving career, a chance at transcendent love—the whole American kit and caboodle. If he has a few beers, he just has a few beers.” In America, it is different, from the slums to the suburbs: People are sobbing inside as they consider their lives and prepare another consultation with crack, booze, heroin, or other drugs. They think: “there was supposed to be more to it than this.” The facts are there for those who wish to go beyond the evasive sloganeering going on at the level of politicians and television: Marijuana is California’s biggest cash crop; the Vietnam War brought heroin to this country, with the help of Air America; cocaine is flowing in; alcohol, a big killer, is legal. See asks if the American dream is a crock; the answer on one level is unequivocally yes.

The story of See’s half-sister is an example. See expresses great regret at not being able to liberate her sister from her mother’s home. That See made a most precarious escape, as a teenager, from the...

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