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 village in Toishan Province, China, in 1957 in search of work. Elaine's mother, Lau Woon Ching, was born in Toishan Province in 1941, a few months before her own father, Elaine's grandfather, left his family in Toishan to find work in the United States. Elaine was born Mar Man Yee on Oct. 1, 1966, in the first year of the Cultural Revolution and on the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
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 United States from Czechoslovakia in 1920, was the cantor in a synagogue in Baltimore. Her father, Hugo, was an opera composer who conducted the synagogue choir. She and her brother, Jonny, were raised in a household filled with sacred and secular music and with art treasures her father had purchased in London and Prague during World War II. Born two years after the end of the war, Weisgall inherited the physical beauty of her mother, Nathalie. But she also inherited her mother's inability to carry a tune; that and her gender prevented her from participating in the ritual singing, the expression of her faith.
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 Pennsylvania, a 19-year-old woman named Peggy Snyder died 16 days after giving birth to twin boys. Forty-seven years later, her husband, Dick Snyder, now an old man with a brain tumor and a failing memory, struggles to recollect the story of their brief life together and her death. Haunted by boyhood visitations from his dead mother, and spurred on by the persistent curiosity of his youngest daughter, one of the twins, Don, sets out to reconstruct the story his father has suppressed for so long and can no longer remember.
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: "Maybe 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 Radom, Poland, when German bombers blackened the sky, setting the city on fire as German tanks rolled across the border, grinding the fall harvest into dust. Gut volunteered to accompany the Polish army as they retreated to a forest in Polish Lithuania, where she was beaten and raped by Russian soldiers. She was forced to work in a hospital in Russian-occupied Poland until she managed to escape and eventually return to her family in German-occupied Poland.
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 Germany disguised as a Jew. She has lived in the United States since 1949, becoming a citizen five years after her arrival.
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, Isaac Levendel in his book Not the Germans Alone: A Son's Search for the Truth of Vichy (Northwestern Univ., $25.95) also captures the essence of heroism, describing people who did what had to be done because doing otherwise was simply not an option. But in his story this unequivocal goodness is more sharply delineated against the indifference or hostility of the French bureaucrats, mercenaries and government officials who collaborated with the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews.
On June 4, 1944, 7-year-old Isaac and his mother were hiding out in a cherry orchard in southern France to escape the deportation of Jews to the German concentration camps. That day, Isaac's mother decided to return to their home in Avignon to retrieve some of their belongings. She never returned. It was assumed she had been arrested by the Germans.
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 Vichy government -- are juxtaposed against his account of the love and protection lavished on him by the two families who sheltered him from Nazi persecution and the family who raised him after the war.
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.