In the last light, the fields outside gleam. She must finish her letter, so she can post it at the next station. There is much she cannot write her parents and her sister Allegra about: not the round-ups in Paris, for instance, not her new awareness of the gradations and varieties of fear — one that numbs, another that makes her sharp and quick, certainly not Alain’s and Jean’s involvement with the Resistance.
Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms is a collection of interconnected short stories that takes readers to France, Israel, and the United States during and after World War II, following a single family as it navigates the fear, devastation, and loss of war and the evils of the Holocaust. The collection opens with Lise going to her sister-in-law’s deathbed, secretly pleased at the prospect of raising her niece, Eugenie, as her own. Then Lise and Eugenie, escape Saint-Malo to avoid having to register as Jews, and thus begins the family’s journey from place to place, leaving behind their lives, their belongings every time they are forced to flee.
Each story stands on its own, but putting them into a single volume makes for a richer, more profound tale that spans generations. Hall brings to life such interesting characters — from Simone, a woman in the Resistance who dares to dream of a future after the war, to Magda, a Holocaust survivor who takes great pains to hide the numbers on her arm — and it was fascinating to see how they were connected to the Latour family. The stories also touch on the immigrant experience, with Eugenie becoming “Genny,” and the ways in which a family’s history is passed on.
The story “Heirlooms” was particularly touching and reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in listing the things the family had lost to the war, from furniture and businesses to their language and their loved ones, and how secrets and desires cannot be left behind.
“Sometimes,” Lise will say, “I find myself wondering where something is–an owl brooch set with turquoise eyes from my sister or a particular square platter. And then I know: It is gone.” She shakes her head, laughs at her forgetfulness.
For the Latour family and others who have been displaced by war, the heirlooms they pass on are these stories of survival and their ability to rebuild their lives and move on, to even laugh again. I didn’t realize how attached I’d grown to these characters until I teared up on the last page, when the story comes full circle and acknowledges the sad fact of life that not all of the questions about our pasts will be answered. Heirlooms is a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and loss over the course of generations, touching upon what it means to be family and how the pains of the past can impact the future.
Disclosure: I received Heirlooms from Caitlin Hamilton Marketing for review.