Memory comes alive in this compelling amalgam of drawing, narrative and archival photography.
A prolific illustrator of children’s books and an artist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review and other magazines, the author made a major leap into memoir with Mendel’s Daughter (2006), his debut in the genre. Where that well-reviewed volume focused on the Holocaust from the perspective of his mother, this follow-up continues the story of Lemelman’s family through the author’s Brooklyn boyhood. Though there’s an innocence to his tales of working at his father’s candy store—squashing cockroaches, playing pranks and exploring the worlds of the streets (“There was always something going on at the Market…Life was everywhere”)—this was not an idyllic childhood, nor is it rendered sentimentally. After immigrating to America following World War II, Lemelman’s parents turned family life into an ongoing battle as they balanced the nonstop demands of a neighborhood shop with the challenges of raising two rambunctious sons. “Deh Tateh” had served in the Soviet army after surviving the Holocaust, complained incessantly about life in America and barely hid his alcoholism. “Der Mameh” refused to back down to her husband, insisted she was more of a help in the store than he thought she was and left her son feeling deprived. The author and his brother Bernard became both allies and antagonists within the family dynamic. It all comes to vivid life through the artist’s drawing and through a narrative that conjures the voices of his dead parents to complement the author’s perspective, which retains a childlike spirit. The family chronicle unfolds against the backdrop of a tumultuous era—the assassination of a president, the escalation of the war in Vietnam and, perhaps most significant for the family, the changing demographics of a neighborhood that initially brought new waves of customers but saw a rise of anti-Semitism that drove so many families and businesses from what had long been their home.
“Life is the biggest bargain. You get it for free,” reads one of the Yiddish sayings that introduce the chapters, in a book that is both a celebration and an affirmation of life.