Sausalito author taking care of the immigrant experience

The backdrop for Bill Broder’s latest novel is one that may be familiar to Detroit Jews of a certain era: synagogue during the High Holy days, idyllic summer vacations, the requisite ruthless gangsters.

Broder, whose previous work has been characterized by a profound appreciation for the natural world, retraced the footprints of his Detroit upbringing in the late ’20s and ’30s in “Taking Care of Cleo.”

The Sausalito author attended grammar schools with the children of the notorious Purple Gang, a group of mostly Jewish gangsters who ran an extensive bootlegging business from the Canadian border to Detroit. Needless to say, the Purple Gang was not fond of competition.

The book’s central conflict is between Cleo, a teenager with autism, and the Purple Gang, but the novel derives its thematic impetus from the Jewish immigrant experience.

“‘Taking Care of Cleo’ happens to take place in Charlevoix [in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula], but actually the origin of the story is really about origins of Jewish life in America. When Jews got off the ship in Montreal or New York or Galveston, the first thing that happened was that a Jewish immigrant hired a horse and cart and put textiles on back, or pots and pans, and sold them throughout the countryside.”

The close-knit Jewish family depicted in the book mirrors Broder’s own Conservative upbringing.

“My father was very frum,” recalled the 79-year-old author, who has lived in the Bay Area since 1957 and was a teaching assistant for Wallace Stegner at Stanford University. “Irving Howe once said that the definition of a Jew is someone who sits on a rock and argues with God, and that was my father to a tee,” Broder said with a chuckle.

Although Broder is not a practicing Jew, his work is infused with the Jewish morals he got from his parents.

“The values that were passed to me by my father and by his father before him are a constant source of artistic and spiritual nourishment,” said Broder, who spoke recently at the Osher Marin JCC about his work.

“Unfortunately, when I was growing up, the insular nature of Detroit’s organized Jewish community felt very spiritually empty. It was all about money, status and where your family originated. That type of environment didn’t foster a desire to become more engaged with organized Jewish life.”

So, Broder opted to do what many young men of his generation did — he ran away and joined the Navy. Broder served in Korea from 1950 to 1953, and although his memories of that war are still vivid, it hasn’t provided any grist for the literary mill.

The majority of the writer’s works have environmental themes. Broder has written extensively for the Sierra Club, including doing all the research and writing for San Mateo’s Coyote Point Museum of Environmental Education.

His books also have historical overtones. Broder and his wife, Gloria Kurian-Broder, collaborated on a book called “Remember This Time,” based on her family’s European Jewish roots. And his “Thanksgiving Trilogy” encapsulates five decades of Bay Area history.

But Broder has yet to commit words to paper concerning one of the defining moments of his life.

“It was an act of madness to join the Navy in the first place,” Broder said. “It was nothing I really believed in … I just wanted to get out of my hometown. No one really knew what the Cold War was about, and time hasn’t yielded any acceptable answers.”

Broder contrasts his ambivalence about his Navy service to his father’s reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father — who was 45 at the time — went down to the recruiting office and tried to enlist,” Broder said. “He wasn’t accepted, but he was ready to sacrifice for his country.”

“That was a different time,” Broder continued. “There was more innocence then. People assumed that the government knew what they were doing … We can’t make that assumption anymore.”

“Taking Care of Cleo” by Bill Broder (360 pages, Handsel Books, $24.95)