There have been many generational family sagas written lately about how choices and experience made in one generation impacts the next. Most, however, are told in the same tired way. There are two storylines—one past, one current— and they alternate chapters with the endpoint moving toward an intersection of the two.
Invariably, I savor the story of one character and find myself rushing through the other to get back to the one I like better as I bet many of you do, too. But I don’t see that structure going away. It seems to be preferred by most of the big five publishers. It’s familiar for readers. In other words, safe and sellable with little risk.
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Wisely, Florence Reiss Kraut chose not to do this. It was so much richer to get this fuller picture of various family members through time. She wrote this novel as a chronological aging of a family as the trauma of the past imprints the future. It is an original portrayal of how the actions of one generation has consequences for the next.
Florence Reiss Kraut, author
We live with the Weissman family from 1905 until 2012. Their stories don’t skirt BIG traumatic events but also show the smaller personal idiosyncrasies, losses big and small, and desires we all have. These rich characterizations fill out our understanding of who these people are and how they walk through the world.
The novel opens in 1905. I must warn you, the opening scene is graphic, violent and horrifying. Ida, the matriarch’s family is brutally murdered in a pogrom in Kotovka, Ukraine. She escapes with one daughter, Bessie, and a baby.
From there, we are immersed in the lives of Ida, Bessie, her husband Abe and their five children as early life in twentieth century New York city shapes them. Each child has a definite personality types as total Jewish American immersion takes place within the family.
From there, each chapter focuses on one character. Because of the length of time and changes in their lives, the reader sees the growing affluence, and how the scars and memories of the parents have impacted the succeeding generations.
All of the children are named for the dead family members in Ukraine. While it is Jewish tradition to honor deceased family members in that way, the violent deaths of the family members they are named for struck me as marking them. Each of the children with the exception of the youngest one, Faye, know the history and their lives are colored by it. Ruby, the oldest is mentally ill (probably schizophrenic); Jenny is the dependable, caregiver child expected to put family needs above her own; Irene marries a boy from the neighborhood, her brother’s best friend. Morris is marked by WWII and becomes a cop; Faye is the baby who is protected, educated, and marries out of the faith.
While this family tree may be difficult to read, I thought it a great visual for you to see the breadth of the family.
No spoilers. But each of the characters try to find their way out of the family expectations, judgments, and betrayals. This can be metaphorical or real. As time passes, we find ourselves in the horror for Jews in Ukraine, tenements of Brooklyn and on through the years India, Israel, Spain, Woodstock, the aftermath of wars, on the road. Either as retreat, adventure in trying to find oneself, or as the unveiling of their true selves.
One of the strengths of the book I thought was Kraut’s ability to create a pathos for the smaller events, such as an older parent giving up his car keys or a misguided sisters trip, as well as the big impacts that either bring a family together or tear them apart. The author had a long career as a social worker and she brings insight that enhance the stories.
How To Save a Life was published by She Writes Press. This is a hybrid imprint for women that publishes manuscripts they deem publish-ready based on the merit of the writing rather than the author’s platform. I plan to check them out to see what the rest of their list looks like. www.shewritespress.com