A family scrapbook that paints a vivid image of life in an Illinois town over four generations, using diary entries, photos and letters.
In 2013, when Eisen discovered a diary belonging to her great-grandmother Ellensohn, she set out on a quest to piece together her family’s history. Her debut provides readers with the fruits of her labor, spanning nearly a century of stories, correspondence and memories. Her retrospective of life in Cicero, Illinois, featuring dozens of old photographs, is impressively comprehensive. There are yellowed portraits of great-uncles and great-aunts from the late 1800s, grocery lists dating back to 1927, and ancient recipes for cream puffs that call for ingredients such as ammonia and lard. The author acts largely as a biographer, allowing her family history to unfold mostly without comment—but during particularly amusing stories, she can’t resist adding her two cents: “I warned you about the name recycling,” Eisen jokes, after she introduces yet another family member named Mary. “In fact, my alternate title to this book is, ‘So Many Marys, So Many Johns.’ ” When Eisen can’t provide specific information, she dramatizes events, filling in gaps with imagined diary entries based on stories she’d been told by others. However, the book is extensive enough without these fictionalized sections. Readers will often find it fascinating to be a fly on the wall in the Ellensohn household. However, because the book spans four generations in sometimes tedious chronological order, it also highlights mundane details that aren’t particularly gripping. For example, Eisen’s grandmother’s “chop suey,” made from watered-down soy sauce and celery and eaten during lean years, is worth noting; however, her great-grandmother’s diary entry about setting up a swing set is not. Although the author has undoubtedly created a valuable genealogical resource, casual readers may not find it as compelling as her own family might.
An expansive history, detailing the life of a Midwestern family, that’s best in small doses.