Book Review: Ernest Cataldo’s “A Life on Beacon Hill”

What’s it like choosing to renovate a home and raise a family in the middle of the city in the last half of the 20th century when the trend among lesser imaginations is to hightail it out to some suburb?

Fifty-year Beacon Hill resident Ernest Cataldo answers that question and many others in his new self-published memoir, “A Life on Beacon Hill: An Unauthorized History of Phillips Street.”

First, let’s get the complaints you’ll raise out of the way. Yes, Ernie could have used a good copy editor. And yes, some matters in the history sections might be questionable. So what? Following the path of other Beacon Hill residents such as Samuel Eliot Morison in “One Boy’s Boston,” this is one charming book.

Ernie, a contractor with many satisfied clients on the Hill, tells the story of his childhood in Winthrop, his chopped-up education at MIT, his happy marriage to Donna, their chance encounter with a building to buy on Phillips Street, the many characters he encounters, their raising of three children, two of whom are adopted and who have all turned out well, the ups and downs of renovating their homes, the problems of being a landlord, and finally—and beyond the statute of limitations—the hitherto undisclosed current location of the stolen communion rail that survived the 1968 fire at the First Church, Boston on Marlborough Street.

He juxtaposes his own history with a history of Boston and the North Slope of Beacon Hill, which is engaging and often accurate. The entire book is full of good humor, a cheerful outlook when facing adversity and gratitude for a good life.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Ernie for almost 50 years, and he has completed two renovations for us. So I can vouch for his intelligence, character and skill in rebuilding houses. But I didn’t know he liked to write books, two of which he completed before this one.

Ernie said he wrote this book for his grandchildren. But unintentionally he wrote it for us as an example of what we also can do.

I hope that other long-time residents will follow Ernie’s example and write their own memoir, their history of living in the neighborhood and their encounters with its quirks, characters, surprises and satisfactions. I hope they will publish that memoir on a platform like Amazon so it is accessible to all. We need books with personal experiences, private histories and the stuff of everyday life that won’t usually make it into conventional history books but will tell individual stories that make more scholarly publications come to life.

Ernie’s book is available on Amazon for $7.99. It’s probably the best bargain on Beacon Hill.

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