Orange Prize–winning novelist Berne (The Ghost at the Table, 2006, etc.) shapes a lovely, melancholic biography of her grandmother, despite modest background information.
Because her grandmother left little behind when she died in 1932, the author admits to feeling at times like she is writing a ghost story. “I have to do a little historical tap dancing,” writes Berne, and she has a suave way of going about the process. It helps that she writes with polish and insight: “bereavement, like passion, has no proper notion of scale, and what form it takes depends mostly on the character of the mourner.” That bereavement was nurtured by her father, who lost his mother—Lucile Kroger Berne, daughter of the Cincinnati supermarket king—when he was six. With this biography, the author tenders a well-turned portrait of him as well—restless, irritable, charming, sympathetic, envious. Berne worked with what was available, including a few diaries and photo albums, but her greatest asset was Lucile’s milieu. Cincinnati at the turn of the century was a memorable place, and the rise of the Kroger supermarket empire becomes a satisfying rags-to-riches story in Berne’s capable hands. Lucile played a role in the creation of that empire, only to be shunted aside when her brothers returned from war. In addition to archival resources, the author taps the acumen of Susan Sontag, Ambrose Bierce, Virginia Woolf and others, rendering Lucile as a significant presence on the Wellesley College campus, where she matriculated, and during the year she spent in France helping knit the country together after World War I. Photographs from Lucile’s albums provide further context to her life.
A lyrical character sketch, vivid even through the smoky glass of time.