Heirlooms exquisitely tells the story of the Latour family beginning in Saint-Malo in 1939 when Lise rushes to reach her sister-in-law Esther before she dies. Lise’s twin brother Alain, Esther’s husband, is away in the war and Lise and her husband, Jean, will raise baby Eugenie until Alain can return. Lise is Jewish so when signs stating that all Jews must register within 48 hours appear, even Jean’s mother knows that Lise and Eugenie must head south. On their journey, Lise and the baby encounter the best and the worst of humanity.
“Later, when Lise tells the story of leaving the Occupied Zone, she will remember her mother-in-law’s arm in hers, the kind architect, his meticulous drawings, the way his advice led her to the right place. And then Clara, calling out across the bright plaza. What luck, Lise says. In her telling, she minimizes certain difficulties. The loss of her only pair of wool stockings, for example, she omits all together. One could almost say that the losses are nearly lost themselves Almost. Nearly.”
The words minimize certain difficulties sum up the method Lise and her fellow survivors use to deny and ignore the losses they face in order to remain resilient whether in war-time France or later as they rebuild their lives in the United States and Israel. Author Rachel Hall employs interconnected stories to share the intricately woven tales of the family. The separate stories highlight each event and character with the sharpness of a scalpel. The ending sentences of each story are so brilliantly clear and pointed that one almost has to set the book down and gasp – but the next tale beckons with an almost magnetic pull. Every sentence in this book is so perfect that after the first two stories I decided that I would only allow myself a story a day. An hour later, I returned and read two more stories and by the following morning, I’d finished the book. I forgive myself for this lapse as I will have many chances to read more deliberately as this is a book I will revisit.
It would be impossible to describe each story and to do so would rob them of their impact. However, the title story, Heirlooms, nestled in the middle of the book just after a transatlantic voyage leads survivors to the US, begs examination. Reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s seminal The Things They Carried, the story Heirlooms notes:
“They left family, Lise’s brother, in a mass grave in a town with a name like a howl. Her sister-in-law, the child’s mother, buried in Saint-Malo. They left a trunk of the tiny embroidered dresses she made Eugenie, and bloomers, smocks with scalloped hems, the stitches so small they were nearly invisible. One or two of these garments might have been saved, so small they wouldn’t take up much space. No, it is better not to think this way, Lise decided. Better to think instead “useful,” “necessary,” “indispensable.”
Hall’s meticulous research inspired by her family’s wartime papers and photographs, now housed in the U S Holocaust Memorial Museum, make paragraphs like the previous one help the reader see the lives of the people she portrays.
Heirlooms is a collection of stories that is so much greater than each piece. Reading Heirlooms struck me the way standing in front of Monet’s haystack paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago captures me. Monet painted several views of haystacks intended to be seen together. These separate paintings are at once dependent and independent. Hall’s stories are like Monet’s haystacks, separate works of art that are independently beautiful but that together form an entrancing mosaic leading the reader into insight about how our families and history form us.
Heirlooms won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction selected by author Marge Piercy but it won’t get much attention because it’s from a small university press, not a juggernaut of a publishing house. It will be ignored by the major newspapers and magazines and that’s understandable as I must confess that I almost skipped it. I was staring at a stack of a more than a dozen supposedly exceptional books all coming out this fall and this one didn’t have that buzz. That’s when trust came into play: the book’s publicist, the inimitable Caitlin Hamilton Summie, told me that this was a remarkable book and I knew that I should trust her judgment so I read it. Call your favorite bookstore and your local library and beg them to order this book.
Summing It Up: Heirlooms is an entrancing homage to families and those displaced by war. It crystallizes the story of an extended family of Jews during World War II and after, yet it could tell the story of Cubans fifty years ago or Syrians today. Each interwoven story brilliantly highlights survival, loss, and resilience.
Note: Heirlooms is an original paperback and would make a perfect stocking stuffer.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Tapas, Book Club
Publication date: September 15, 2016
Author Website: http://www.rachelhall.org
Read an Excerpt: http://www.rachelhall.org/bookexcerpt.html
Interview with the Author: http://www.kenyonreview.org/2016/07/cant-cast-off-interview-fiction-writer-rachel-hall/
What Others are Saying:
“As every story sparkles with its own unique light, it becomes a fragment of memory of the Latour family. These fragments, each one beautiful in its own right, become a complicated story of love and loss, of the Holocaust and its survivors, of immigrants and their ways of adapting to the United States. . . . will grab the reader and refuse to let go.”—Kansas City Jewish Chronicle