Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bending Toward the Sun by Leslie Gilbert-Lurie Review

Publisher's Weekly: The lasting impact of the Holocaust on a survivor and her daughter emerges in this joint account by Lurie-Gilbert and her mother. Lurie was five when a farmer agreed to hide her along with 14 Polish-Jewish relatives in his attic in exchange for jewelry and furs. While in hiding, Lurie witnessed the Nazis shoot a cousin and an uncle; her younger brother and mother died in the stifling, stinking hideout (years later her daughter, Gilbert-Lurie, wonders if the boy was smothered to quiet him and if her grandmother died of a broken heart). After the war, in an Italian DP camp, Lurie's father remarried to a stepmother Lurie resented; her father became increasingly depressed and remote when their fractured and traumatized family relocated to Chicago; and deep depressions haunted Lurie's own otherwise happy marriage. 

Gilbert-Lurie in turn recalls her mother's overprotectiveness, her career as a TV executive, a 1988 visit to her mother's childhood village and her own guilt, anxiety and sadness. Although the voices and experiences expressed are valuable, the writing is adequate at best, with none of the luminosity of Anne Frank, to whom Gilbert-Lurie compares her mother.

My Take: This book has essentially three parts plus one smaller one.  The first part is told in Rita's voice.  She tells of her childhood in Poland, a country that was largely populated by Jews. Her village was virtually unaffected by the Nazi invasion for the first couple of years.  When the S.S. army arrived in approximately 1942, everything changed.  As a very young child she and her family stay in an attic for two years.  As previously mentioned, Rita witnesses the death of her brother and mother.  She is deeply affected by these deaths.

In 1944, when the Russians first conquered Poland, the families emerged from the attic and went from one Displaced Persons camp to another. Isaac, her father, remarries and they immigrate to the U.S.  The second section of the book (according to me) is Rita's growing up years.  The family lived in New York then moved to Chicago where she eventually met Frank, her husband. They begin their family life in southern California where they add two daughters and a son to the mix.  Their children grow and Leslie, the main author comes of age.

Section 3 is Leslie's voice.  She describes her mother's behavior and her own reaction to her mother.  Both women are stunningly honest.  A major theme throughout the book is that Rita never had a childhood and was never nurtured.  It seemed that she sought nurturing from inappropriate sources, especially her oldest daughter.

*Psychological commentary:  (I mean, really, you expected it, didn't you?)  Given that Rita's most traumatic experiences occurred when she was between the ages of 5 and 8, every so often her interactions with others seem childish and disproportionately immature.  It makes sense, however, that when Rita was feeling stress in her interpersonal relationships, that she would revert to the child who still longed to be nurtured.  The scared, lonely little girl in the attic.  Carry on.

It is clear that Rita is a survivor yet she does not have her own identity.  She is vicariously living through her children.  Leslie discovers the term "enmeshed" in her adulthood.  Honestly, there were many times during this part of the book that I couldn't remember which was the parent and which was the child.  Leslie finds that her childhood habit of collecting accomplishments carry over into adulthood.  She is the overachiever who seems afraid to have any down time.

Meanwhile, Leslie is suffering from generalized anxiety.  Sorry about that.  I forgot to warn you that I had another psychological commentary.  Leslie also takes a trip to Poland where she is background for a cousin's documentary.  There she meets the woman who kept the secret of the Jews in her attic, walked through her mother's old house, and became more keenly aware of what her mother experienced.  She also discovers that children of the Holocaust survivors tend to be the hyper-achievers.  They also tend to carry the grief of their parents on their own shoulders and feel responsible for their parents' happiness.  

Leslie eventually marries and has children.  It is only when her own daughter suffers from extreme separation anxiety that Leslie sees the connection.   Leslie tracks down all of her mother's living relatives who offer new insights regarding her grandmother who died and the uncle preceded her.  She also tracks down her mother's stepmother who paints a significantly different picture of their relationship.  

This is a stunning undertaking.  I found the honesty in which the book is written to be painful and genuine.  It is also striking to see the contrast between the perception of a child and the perception of those who were there and remembered things differently.  Perception is reality.  
The fourth little section is written by Leslie's daughter who is processing the burden she had cast about her shoulders without her knowledge.  It is also discovered, at this time, that Leslie is still gathering her accomplishments by being on important committees.  When she realizes what she is doing, she gives up her shield and concentrates on being a mother.

Leslie is able to convey facts and feelings without judgment.  She shares herself openly for the reader, as does her mother, and she assigns her own meaning when crucial to the experience.  Much of the time, however, Leslie is objective and open to interpretation.  
An amazing journey. 

4 and half stars.


daphne sy said...

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie’s Bending Toward the Sun is as beautiful as it is haunting. The author and her team of narrators go past the pain and tragedy of one of the darkest periods in human history to share a remarkable tale of the human spirit and its fight to live as well as thrive.

education flat

Julie said...

Nicely done on your review!

Just in case that you are reading away the day for the readathon, I’m sending you a quote for your encouragement:

There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.
~ Bertrand Russell ~

CountessLaurie said...

Am I gonna cry and cry and cry at the end? I need to know.