Anecdotes from a late-in-life writer revealing an unusual family history.
In her first book, Abell, who was born in 1925 and did not start writing until her 60s, offers a series of dispatches from her childhood. She has an engaging, straightforward style, and each chapter homes in on one aspect of her growing up in unusual places and her erratic parents. In the first piece, “Little Girl Tossed,” the author gives a lively sense of what was important to her 25-year-old parents in the fall of 1928—not her, apparently. Recent graduates of Columbia University and Barnard College, they used the gift of a Buick to quit their service jobs in New York City and head to New Orleans, sleeping in farmhouses along the way and working odd jobs. When Abell became an encumbrance, she was handed off to a farm wife for five weeks; while in New Orleans, she was tossed around by drunken guests at her parents’ Prohibition parties. Her father, an aspiring writer who took a job in Chicago because of pressure from his wife’s rich family, was an opaque, misunderstood presence in his daughter’s life. In “Zayde and Bubbe,” the author recalls how she was dumped at her Yiddish-speaking paternal grandparents’ farm in Connecticut for some weeks when she was 4; she bonded intensely with them but later learned that her father’s shame about them stemmed from his mother’s illiteracy. In one rather shocking episode when Abell was 12, her father, suffering from claustrophobia, asked her to take a walk with him, and in her imagination, he seemed to want to hurl her from the edge of a bluff—“He might push me over the edge and get rid of me forever to make his life better.” Elsewhere, Abell re-creates her astonishing overseas trip to Albania at age 5—where her maternal grandfather, Herman Bernstein, was the newly appointed ambassador—unaccompanied, of course, and playing up her status as a worldly “smartypants.”
Fond, charming snapshots from a lost age.