A fair summary of this hefty volume, "Counter Culture: Clams, Convents, and a Circle of Global Citizens," could be something like this: A souped-up scrapbook of an Irish Catholic family with roots in Lowell's Acre who became hugely successful hospitality entrepreneurs of an empire that spread out across New England and the globe though they never lost sight of their origin and endeavored to give back.
It's true this book reads more than a bit like a scrapbook -- ably written by the youngest daughter of 12 children in the early-20th-century generation of the Dunfey family of Lowell.
The narrative is peppered with reminiscences from her immediate family as they climbed the rungs of the economic ladder, from a modest flat in the Acre to a split-level in Pawtucketville and a larger home in Hampton, N.H. The family's first business was an Acre luncheonette that grew post-WWII to a series of clam stands at Hampton Beach and then on to a New England-based restaurant and hotel empire.
The family developed ties to the Kennedy family and created a philanthropic organization, Circle of Global Citizens, aimed to connect folks in constructive dialogue to tackle trenchant problems in our nation and the world. CGC, it seems, is a full-circle manifestation of what the author believes was the roots of the family's success: their belief in the power of simple hospitality.
Like any family scrapbook, the cast of characters (Dunfey family members, neighbors, friends, etc.) can at times be overwhelming -- especially if it's not your family.
It's when the author zooms out and puts the lives and stories of the families in perspective that the real value of this book shows. The book becomes more than just inside tales of family trials; it becomes a meditation on what it means to be a member of a group, what it means to strive to achieve success and not to shirk the responsibility to give back.
In a chapter titled "Rituals, Rituals, and Rules," Dunfey-Freiburger recounts the family's collective and individual relationship with the Catholic church -- at times serious and solemn, and at other times with cheeky flouting of expectations. Through this connection, they gained a sense of belonging that they worked to transmit: "Rituals and rules rooted us physically, socially, and spiritually. Those practices helped bind, comfort, discipline, annoy, and guide us. The stories I share here may sound familiar to others. No one tribe has the corner on youthful pranks and parties."
If you're looking for a nostalgic trip through some inside stories surrounding the family behind the Hampton Beach clam shacks, this book has it in spades. And as an added bonus, the book recounts an optimistic rendering of the American dream. Up from the bootstraps of the Acre the Dunfeys climbed, but they never forgot where they had come from.
At one point, the author calls attention to the remarkable fact that three major businesses grew out of that immigrant Acre: "Dunfey's Luncheonette became Omni International Hotels; the Highland Cleaners, owned by the Antonopoulos family directly across from our store on Broadway became Anton's Cleaners; and Demoulas Market (now known as Market Basket) at the end of Broadway."
From these humble roots, amazing enterprises can and do flourish. With the support of organizations like E for All, an incubator spaces like M2D2 and others, it's great to know the entrepreneurial spirit that animates these pages is still alive and well in Lowell.
Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger will be at Pollard Memorial Library on Tuesday April 30, at 7 p.m., to give a talk and to sell and sign copies of her book. This event is free and open to the public. Profits from the sale of this book will go to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who have served immigrant communities at St. Patrick School in Lowell for 167 years.
Sean Thibodeau is Pollard Memorial Library's coordinator of community planning.