Book review of Wonderland by Nicole Treska

Book review of Wonderland by Nicole Treska

T.S. Eliot wrote, “There’s no vocabulary / For love within a family . . . the love within which / All other love finds speech. / This love is silent.” Not so for Nicole Treska, as she introduces her rogues’ gallery of a family in her debut memoir, Wonderland: A Tale of Hustling Hard and Breaking Even. Treska knows her family’s vocabulary by heart and speaks it with equal parts love, loyalty, chagrin and ambivalence. She paints her hometown of Boston with the same vibrant detail, offering both cityscape and cultural backdrop. Legendary attractions like the Hilltop, Kowloon and the Golden Banana strip club come alive, along with cherished and not-so-cherished memories of her family, some of them long gone but living on in their own notoriety.

Treska begins by envisioning the eponymous Wonderland, a short-lived, early-1900s amusement park on Boston’s Revere Beach. “Of course,” Treska writes, “we revered some kind of permanence—something to point to and say, ‘I came from right here.’ . . . There was yearning in what remained.” In this spirit, Treska dives into her family history. Her grandfather was a bookie for the infamous Whitey Bulger. His diner was host to the Winter Hill Gang, an Irish mob syndicate that dominated the city in the ’60s and ’70s: “They ran books and armed the IRA and engaged in your typical mob-type behavior: racketeering, robbery, drugs, murder.” When her father, Phil, worked at the diner, he took bets from “all the gamblers and wiseguys around town” and later did a stint in prison for federal drug trafficking. “My family met the devil regularly,” Treska notes dryly.

Meanwhile, Treska was the first to graduate from college, and she became an adjunct professor at City College of New York. But she notes, too, her skill at swapping price tags on artwork and stealing accessories for her Harlem apartment. She also became smart at tricking her landlord and profiting from the Airbnb rental of one of her bedrooms. “Begging, borrowing, and stealing were the only way I knew how to build a life, but I did build.”

Treska’s reckoning of her two lives—rising success in New York and her family’s heavy legacy of poverty and crime in Boston—continues. Phil gambles. “He breathed, he lied, he gambled, and then all the rest that makes up a life,” Treska writes. “I loved my father. And how do you love a thief?” For those who, like Treska, may have some skeletons in their family closet, Wonderland holds both good and bad news: We can honor them with our fonder memories, but the damage they caused may yet linger. But still, family is something to point to, to say, “I came from right here.”

Originally published here.

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