.Five books are reviewed
by Lori Tsang. Not the Germans Alone is the last one.
By Lori Tsang
For some people, history is the crucible through which they must pass, the one thing that will influence their lives the most. For others, family is the defining thing, a world unto itself.
Child of the Revolution
In 1972, when she was 5 years old, Elaine Mar and her mother moved from a
one-room apartment in Hong Kong to a one-room apartment in Denver, in order
to join Elaine's father, Mar Yat Shing. He had moved to Hong Kong from his
Paper Daughter (HarperCollins, $23), Mar's well-crafted, engaging account of her life from her birth in Hong Kong to her graduation from Harvard, is told in graceful, unobtrusive prose that is personal without being sentimental, and uses no obvious tricks or artifice.
Her depiction of her childhood -- the five-room flat shared with four other families in Hong Kong, the basement of her father's sister's house in Denver, the restaurant where her father worked in America, the Chinese club that formed the nucleus of immigrant social life -- is filled with detailed descriptions of the physical environment without being cloyingly ethnographic. The accounts of her ambiguous relationships with her Americanized cousin and "American" schoolmates, her struggle to survive at school in an atmosphere of racial prejudice, and her family's break with her father's sister are frank and honest, without a trace of self-pity or indulgence.
Mar's portrayals of her adolescent efforts to deal with her emotional and bodily appetites, to negotiate issues involving sex, food and money, and to bridge the widening gap between herself and her parents move effortlessly between straightforward narrative and brief poetic or philosophical passages that help the flow of her story: "I didn't want to explain that over four years the distance between Denver and Cambridge had grown until I was as far away as another country. My parents weren't able to visit. Like my grandfather, I'd immigrated with no way to send for my family." She reminds us that the immigrant's journey involves more than navigating the geography of political boundaries, that it is a continuous mapping and remapping of the geography of culture, family and love.
Song of Herself
As she recounts in A Joyful Noise: Claiming the Songs of My
Fathers(Atlantic Monthly, $24), Deborah Weisgall grew up in a family where
love and faith were inextricably entwined with art and music. Deborah's
grandfather, Abba, who brought his family to the
Weisgall's narrative weaves the story of her longing to be part of the musical tradition of her Jewish heritage with the stories of her father's struggle to create his music in an unreceptive cultural environment, her parents' turbulent relationship, her emerging sexuality and her search through her parents' drawers and closets and through the cities and countryside of Europe for the dark secrets of her family history. Lurking beneath the beauty of her father's music are his wartime memories of the Holocaust and his wife's infidelity.
This coming-of-age chronicle depicts a young girl's growing comprehension of the power of the beauty of her grandfather's ritual music as a manifestation of faith, as well as the power of her own physical beauty to hurt or manipulate others. The book suffers, however, from a lack of clarity in its thematic development, limited insight and a distracting self-consciousness.
In the summer of 1950, in a small town in
In Of Time and Memory: A Mother's Story (Knopf, $25), Don Snyder skillfully intertwines his account of his search for his mother and his reconstruction of her life as a young girl, wife and mother into a series of overlapping love stories -- among himself and his father, his mother and his children, and between his mother and father -- a poetic conflation of past and present, a merging of dream, memory and desire. He paints a vivid portrait of small-town life in the years after World War II as experienced by a young girl: her first dates, the music, movies and dances, her relationships with her family and friends, her wedding preparations.
Digging even deeper, he delves into her inner life -- her fears and insecurities, her moodiness, her anger, her obsession with beauty and her dreams and aspirations -- as a teenage girl living in her parents' house, a young woman in love, a newlywed, a sick pregnant woman and, finally, as a young mother on her deathbed, too weak to hold her own babies: "May be our adult lives begin when we have that first sense that others are oblivious to our dreams and our desires. Peggy was seventeen when this happened. Later she suspected that it had happened much sooner for her girlfriends; she believed she was late with everything." He reveals the secret of her death, describing in excruciating detail the symptoms of the disease that killed her. His search for those who were responsible for her death takes him on a journey through a minefield of suppressed memories to a revelation of faith, strength and love.
Courage on the Line
In her memoir In My Hands (Knopf, $18), written with Jennifer Armstrong and meant for young readers, Irene Gut Opdyke tells the story of how an ordinary young girl was transformed into a hero -- how she and many others committed acts of resistance instinctively and without question, as a matter of conscience and at the risk of death, as if such courage were the most natural thing in the world.
In September 1935, Irene Gut was a student nurse in
In 1941, she was forced to work in an ammunition factory and then in a
German officers' dining room as a waitress, where she began sliding food from
the kitchen through a hole in the fence enclosing the Jewish ghetto. Over the
next few years, she continued to help Jews by providing them with food,
blankets and information gleaned from overheard conversations, and smuggled
people and supplies into the forest. She became the housekeeper for a German
officer and hid 12 Jews in the basement of his home. She later joined the
Polish resistance and worked as a guerrilla fighter and a spy. After the
German defeat, she was forced to seek refuge from the Soviet military police
in a repatriation camp in
Opdyke tells her story in a voice that reflects the clarity and conviction of a woman to whom acts of heroism and courage are simply natural human responses to inhumanity. She uses simple and direct language to demystify the concept of heroism and depict courage as a matter of basic human decency well within the capability of ordinary humans.
Like Irene Gut Opdyke,
In 1990, Levendel returned to that cherry orchard, and the memories of his
loss drove him to investigate the circumstances of his mother's
disappearance. The results of his investigation -- the revelation of the
machinations of French anti-Semitism institutionalized by the official
sanction of the
Levendel's relentless exposition of the widespread apathy and cooperation with the state-authorized deportations is bound to make readers feel uncomfortable because it is the prevailing human response in many other situations that are analogous, although generally of less consequence. As one reads this account, the disturbing question "What would I have done?" is hard to suppress. But Levendel leaves nothing to chance; he explicitly asks not only us but also himself that exact question at the close of the book.
Lori Tsang is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company