A Jewish writer explores his heritage in a speculative family history that mirrors the triumphs and tragedies of the 20th century.
Laskin (The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, 2010, etc.) stays firmly within his characteristic style of anecdotal guesswork in chronicling the fates of three branches of his family tree. While his journalistic consistency may be a bit dubious, the author knows how to zero in on a good story. Starting with a rumor that Joseph Stalin’s enforcer Lazar Kaganovich might be a distant relation, Laskin dives deeply into the lives and times of his relatives, dating back to the late 19th century in Volozhin, Russia. It’s after the family’s move to Belarus that the narrative gets really interesting. One branch, largely led by Maidenform Bra founder Ida Rosenthal, landed in New York and Americanized everything about themselves, abandoning names, homes and traditions. “Others step off the boat, fill their lungs with the raw unfamiliar air, and get to work. They never look back because they never have a moment to spare or an urge to regret,” writes the author. Another couple, Chaim and Sonia, became hard-core Zionist pioneers in the wilds of Palestine. Another entire branch was lost to the Holocaust, a richly imagined tragedy but one that Laskin has largely plucked from history books. Were this fiction, it would read much like the novels of Leon Uris and other spinners of historical sagas, as Laskin ties his relatives to events ranging from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Black Friday to the establishment of Israel. The telling of the tales and the recollection of history eventually breaks the author’s assumptions that his family was all about business. “Now I see how wrong I was,” Laskin writes. “History made and broke my family in the 20th century.”
An ambitious, experimental look at exodus, acclimatization and culture with a cast as diverse as any family photo album.