01 July 2006

The House on Lippincott

Since beginning my graduate work, I have put aside any hope of reading fiction until I'm done. There is simply so much heavy reading to do in the course of doctoral degree - not to mention ancillary reading and research for lectures and talks - that fiction would seem like the proverbial busman's holiday. I did, however, make one exception.

Bonnie Burstow is one of my professors - one of my exceptional professors - and has become a friend during my time at OISE. She is also the author of a most remarkable book, The House on Lippincott, published this spring by Inanna Press.
Embedded in Canadian and world history, and set in downtown Toronto between 1947 and the turn of the century, The House on Lippincott is a Jewish family saga which weaves together family caring, Holocaust trauma, abuse, aging, betrayal, anti-Semitism, resistance, and celebration, while introducing vital new characters to the Canadian landscape. There is brilliant feminist scholar and thinker, Miriam Himmelfarb, from whose perspective the story unfolds, her parents--Rachael and Daniel--both Holocaust survivors and activists, mysterious Uncle Yacov, and sisters Sondra and Esther. As children of survivors, early on, Miriam and her sisters make a decision which is to haunt them. A woman with heart, the aging Rachael presents her family with yet another harrowing choice. Compelling, passionate, touching. Long buried secrets come to light. Throughout, this novel is engrossing, passionate, captivating. Grounded in the language and conundrums of a Jewish immigrant family, it has the appeal of any novel embedded in a specific culture. At the same time, it extends beyond that culture, and indeed, beyond the Holocaust, bringing us face-to-face with the human condition: our ability to create joy and meaning even under dire circumstances, human suffering, growing up, responsibility, love, betrayal, family ties, the realities of growing old, death and the vulnerability of the human soul.
The book is at once profoundly moving and intellectually challenging as it recounts the life and times of the Himmelfarb family, perceived through the eyes and heart of Miriam, the second eldest daughter, in the role narrator. I love this book for a variety of reasons:

First, I know these characters. Not only do they represent people who have passed through my life at one time or another, Bonnie has created characters with such nuanced depth of personality that they are, indeed, real. Even the minor characters correspond faithfully to my experience and memories of those who have been on the periphery of my life.

Second, in the three daughters, Sondra, Miriam and Esther, Bonnie has explored three very distinct responses to the family life of Holocaust-survivor parents. None is a caricature, yet each in her own way, captures the unique mentality of a child - and later adult - attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible as it infiltrates her own life.

Third, without revealing the end of the story, the final scenes represent the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over the evil that was perpetrated during the Holocaust, even in the final decline of that spirit. The resolution of the story, facilitated by Eema (mother) in her final days, stands in stark contrast to the ultimate defeat of her husband by the ghosts of the Nazis that tormented him throughout his life, and through him, I would say, tormented his daughters.

Fourth, there is an important process of witnessing that occurs throughout this story that I have not encountered elsewhere. In particular, the gendered experience of the Holocaust represents a set of experiences that have not been widely publicized, that are important to chronicle. The tragic experience of evil and depravity has always been, and continues to be, a gendered phenomenon. It is only relatively recently that the awareness of this divide has reached the mass media and popular consciousness. In my own reading about the Holocaust over the years, and through the representations and narratives contained among Holocaust memorials and museums that I have visited, I had only heard very few of the experiences in the camps that were uniquely experienced by women and girls.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, this book is the story of the particular heritage of the Canadian Jewish community. While it starkly confronts the reader with images from Auschwitz, it equally confronts the reader with images from countless homes across Toronto and, I would expect, Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and the various smaller centres that were the final destinations of thousands of post-war, Jewish refugees. Albeit a fictional account in which the characters are all amalgams of life stories drawn from both research and Bonnie's clinical practice as a trauma therapist, these stories are important for Canadian Jews to know. Irrespective of whether readers share their generation with Miriam, Sondra and Esther, or whether they are the children of that generation, the book is one of the ways to understand our own psyche.

The book is, unfortunately, in very limited distribution. In Toronto, it is available at the Toronto Women's Bookstore, at some Book City outlets, at Israel's, and some other independent sellers. It is also available directly from Inanna. It has just become available in Vancouver and a couple of other cities as well. However you manage to obtain a copy, read this book.

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