A finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Red Star Tattoo is Sonja Larsen's unforgettable memoir of a young life spent on the move, from hardscrabble Milwaukee to dreamy Hawaii, from turbulent Montreal to free-spirited California. At the age of 16, Sonja joins a cult-like communist organization in Brooklyn--unaware of the dark nature of what awaits her.
A small, skinny 8-year-old girl holding a teddy bear stands by the side of a country road with a young man she barely knows. They're hitchhiking from a commune in Quebec to one in California. It is 1973 and somehow the girl's parents think this is a good idea.
Sonja Larsen's is a childhood in which family members come and go and where freedom is both a gift and a burden. Her mother, thrown out of home as a pregnant teenager by her evangelical preacher father, is drawn to the utopian ideals and radical politics of communism. Her aunt Suzie is gripped by schizophrenia, her behaviour so erratic she eventually loses custody of her daughter. And then there is her cousin Dana, shunted back and forth long-distance between her parents--Dana, whose own need to escape leads to tragedy.
Looking for a sense of family, searching to belong, to have your life mean something--this is what all these girls and young women share. As a teenager, Larsen moves to Brooklyn, embedding herself with an organization known publicly as the National Labor Federation and privately as the Communist Party USA Provisional Wing. Over her three years at the organization's national headquarters, Larsen works sixteen-hour day, eager to prove herself. Noticed and encouraged by the Old Man, the organization's charismatic leader, he makes her one of his "special girls," as well as the youngest member of the organization's militia and part of its inner circle. But even as she and her comrades count down the days on the calendar until the dawning of their new American revolution, Larsen's doubts about the cause and the Old Man become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Red Star Tattoo explores the seductions and dangers of extremism, and asks what it takes to survive a childhood scarred by loss, abuse and the sometimes violent struggle for belonging.
SONJA LARSEN is a graduate of the Simon Fraser University Writer's Studio. Larsen's work has been published in The Globe and Mail, Room and Descant, and a number of other print and online literary magazines. She works with youth in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The author lives in Vancouver, BC.
WINNER of the 2017 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
FINALIST for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction
“As is the case with lives themselves, all memoirs are unique, but this seems especially true of Sonja Larsen’s Red Star Tattoo: My Life as a Girl Revolutionary. In this coming-of-age story, she looks back at a childhood and adolescence spent searching for a sense of connection and purpose beyond her family, first in a commune and later as part of what she eventually recognized as a cult whose purported goal was to incite an American communist revolution. She captures the environment of paranoia, violence, and futility in which she grew up in a stark, frank style that never tugs on readers’ heartstrings or asks for their pity. Instead, Larsen presents a clear-eyed look at her almost unbelievable past and crafts a character study in resilience that is eminently engaging.” —Bruce Gillespie, juror, 2017 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction
“[A] compelling story of the author’s youth in counterculture organizations. . . . Larsen vividly describes the physical and psychological demands of her life as part of a cadre. . . . Her account is a coming-of-age story as well as a fascinating tale of living in a committed but ineffectual political group.” —2017 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction jury
“Sonja Larsen did not have the typical Canadian childhood, coming of age as she did in communes and cults, raised on the shoulder of hitchhiked roads and in the midst of would-be revolutions. In Red Star Tattoo, she captures the sad absurdity of her upbringing in a voice that’s both courageous and compelling. Her story of surviving neglect, abuse, brainwashing, and also her own longing to be part of something politically grand is told without an iota of bitterness or self-pity. In the end, Larsen offers a glimpse not only of forces that can seduce the young to embrace countercultures, but of those that shaped her own remarkable resilience.” —2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction jury Carolyn Abraham, Stephen Kimber, and Emily Urquhart.
“Red Star Tattoo is a harrowing, engrossing memoir about coming of age in a cult, told from the point of view of a socially conscious teenager led to believe that armed revolution will topple capitalism in the United States. In sparse, elegant prose, Red Star Tattoo beautifully maps a young girl’s quest for meaning, belonging, and, ultimately, independence.” —Carmen Aguirre, author of Something Fierce and Mexican Hooker #1
“As a child of the counterculture and a teenager who was promised revolution, the young Sonja Larsen desired to be a part of something monumental. As I turned the pages of this beautifully told story, my emotions ran between anger, sorrow and sheer admiration at Sonja’s determination to find belonging in her present with no guidance from her past. The parallels with what may be happening with our youth and extremism today make this story not only entertaining, but relevant to all.” —Cea Sunrise Person, author of North of Normal
“What a story! The daughter of a drug-dealing father and a communist mother, at sixteen Sonja Larsen joins a revolutionary group that runs on abuse of power and dangerous secrets. This hard-won memoir of her relationship with an unforgettably seductive and frightening cult leader is both gripping and insightful.” —Marni Jackson, author of The Mother Zone
“If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a brainwashed devotee of a mad charismatic leader, look no further. . . . Red Star Tattoo [is] an insightful and moving memoir.” —M.A.C. Farrant, The Vancouver Sun
“This is an engrossing memoir detailing the art of grotesque seduction, told with occasionally stunning skill—she likens the revolution to a sun that lit up every corner of her life but which she could never look at directly—and unusual honesty.” —Susan G. Cole, NOW (NNNN)
“Like many another spiritually battered child, Sonja finds relief in treating her experience as stories to be shared. Red Star Tattoo is a prolonged tale . . . never tedious, never self-obsessed, a triumphant affirmation of the storyteller’s art.” —National Post
“Entering her world is like staring through a kaleidoscope where the bright colours shift to reveal a new pattern, even when your eyes think they’ve adjusted to the last. I picked up the book in an afternoon and—each page turned in steady anticipation—did not put it down until I was finished. Larsen’s story is engrossing, and at times unbelievable. She uses sweeping and poetic language to mask the deeply disturbing nature of the book . . . and the prose lopes along steadily, smoothing out all of the jagged edges left by the story itself. If the purpose of a memoir is for the author to come to terms with their own existence, then Red Star Tattoo is a catharsis.” —Isabel B. Slone, The Globe and Mail
“[A]n eloquent, stranger-than-fiction memoir. . . . In a thoughtful and poignant concluding section set ‘years after the revolution,’ Larsen outlines the consequences of her childhood. A veteran soldier, she’s survived the ordeal and can now share the wisdom gained from the experience.” —Brett Josef Grubisic, Toronto Star
“With an honest voice, Larsen draws a fine line between activism and extremism, as well as the difficulty in deciphering between the two. Dark and primal confessions paired with sharp pangs of loss and an underlying yearning for human connection, Larsen will leave readers shocked as they may find agency and kinship through her raw accounts.” —Sam Juric, THIS Magazine