Thursday, April 16, 2009

Book Review-Becoming my Mother's Daughter

I just finished reading an interesting book by Erika Gottlieb. With Mother's Day in the not too distant future, I thought I would post the book review for you. The book is available on Chapters, Amazon and your independent book stores...which you should support ALWAYS!

Book Review

“Becoming My Mother’s Daughter
A Story of Survival and Renewal”
By Erika Gottlieb
Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Life Writing Series
March 2008
$24.95, 188 pp. Paper
ISBN10 1-55458-030-7
ISBN13 978-1-55458-030-9

The search for personal identity is as old as time itself. Who we are, how we have been influenced or molded is a journey that each person undertakes at one point or another in the course of life. In “Becoming My Mother’s Daughter, A Story of Survival and Renewal” Erika Gottlieb frames her search in a fictionalized account of her childhood in Budapest, Hungary during the latter days of World War II. Her search for identity is framed both by her Jewish faith and by her relationship with the women in her family. It is a dichotomy of simple and complex themes enveloped in the recollections of a 6 year old child surviving the Holocaust.

The author assumes the persona of “Eva”, who acts as narrator through the story. Her story and that of her Grandmother, Ethel, her mother, Eliza and her sisters Sandy and Ada is a powerful story of survival. Beginning and ending in the present, the premise of the book is simple: life is mourning. In coming to terms with the losses in life, we come to terms with our life itself. As she comes to terms with her mother’s death, Eva comments: “I know that to keep on living I have to leave her behind. I know that to keep on living I cannot leave her behind. I heed both voices. I am my mother’s daughter.”

Eva’s family runs a successful furniture business. They are respected in the community, fluent in German and lead a comfortable, upper middle class existence. All that changes when the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Hungarian wing of the Nazi party, takes over in 1944. Overnight the family’s home is seized, the Jewish families are forced to flee or live in ghettos, or are marched to the train station for transport to concentration camps, or to the river bank where they are shot and thrown in the Danube River. Ms. Gottlieb, in the persona of the six year old child, Eva, is not concerned with historical accuracy, and recounts her life in hiding and in the ghetto in the matter of fact and unemotional way of a child. This lack of emotion strengthens the narrative because it allows the reader to be an observer rather than an interpreter of the events. There is no time to mourn the loss of property, materials, or even friends and family members. Survival leaves no time for mourning.

The story is interwoven with symbols of bridges, tunnels and streetcars, but one of the most powerful images that Erika Gottlieb uses is also one of the most simple: a purse. Her mother’s purse is the source of food and medicine, and other things that determine their survival in a barely survivable time: “…Of course…I can hold those fears at bay because on the sidewalk, we’re walking in the shelter of Mummy, our walking shelter…with her heavy yellow handbag, she is our live shelter. In the bag she carries all our food and money ¾everything we can call our own on this earth.” When Eva’s family eventually escape communist Hungary and emigrate to Canada, the battered yellow purse becomes the bridge between the family’s past and present, as it arrives loaded with all the family photos, documents and memorabilia of their life before World War II. After her mother’s death, the purse becomes the key to understanding her mother, and through that understanding, the author comes to terms with how she has been shaped by her mother. “The tie, the lifeline to the past, the tie between the present and past, the present and future. Mother’s oversize handbag, her heavy burden…her daughter’s lifeline. The bag with its old-and-new treasure without which Eva could not continue her journey.” She states further: “Whether or not I want to continue my journey, I was born and gave birth. How can I then deny it? I have to go on…With a child cradled in my arms, I follow my mother, who in turn is following her own mother.”

The strength of “Becoming My Mother’s Daughter, A Story of Survival and Renewal” lies in the contrast between the writing of Eva as adult and Eva as child. The stark, factual descriptions of life in the latter days of war-torn Hungary provide a perfect foil for the more introspective writing of a woman coming to terms with her legacy, her life and her place within it. In Eva, women find a kindred spirit as all daughters struggle to live up to and live apart from their mothers. Eva’s daughter has much to live up to, and Eliza would be proud.

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