Book Reviews

Shoshanna's Story: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Shadows of History. 

A survivor, a warrior, a mother: Honest portrait.

Elaine Kalman Naves... McClelland & Stewart, 312 pages, $34.99.

Reviewed by Anna Fuerstenberg. 

The terror felt by so many immigrants is conveyed through one family's story.

In a world where the numbers of refugees and immigrants increase daily, Elaine Kalman Naves has managed to convey the utter terror and helplessness so many of them experience. Through her portrayal of her family, she has created a history of all who came here burdened with the unbearable stories of survivors.

Kalman Naves has won awards for her work as an author and journalist. Her new book, Shoshanna's Story: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Shadows of History, is a brutally honest biography of her mother. It's a braided story that weaves back and forth from 19th-century Sub-Carpathia to modern Montreal, with the dramatic tension and suspense of a great novel.

Her mother's depictions of her former life occasionally irritate the author, but they also inspire and haunt her. "The stories weren't designed simply to caution me," she writes. "Passing them on was a kind of exorcism." They provided their listener with a bedrock of personality, and the reader a window into joy and horror. This is a daughter who fearlessly reveals her own shortcomings, as well as those of her intimates, and creates a complex portrait of the...mechanics of family life. Kalman Naves has been able to conjure up the minutest detail of her own birth down to lists of the baby clothes in her layette. Her description of foods, smells, the textures of the fabric in her grandparents' shop, sensually links the reader to a world that has vanished. The treachery of love, war, and the innocence of childish idealism are evoked by a master raconteur. The Hungarian revolution is told from the point of view of the child, who remembers being bathed with icy water between artillery attacks. The most poignant description is of the panic the author felt when she was about to be removed (yet again) from her primary school in England:

"I especially couldn't bear the idea of starting all over again, of being taunted about - what? Who knew what would be wrong about me in Canada? My shoes again? My burgundy and grey school tie? My national health service wire-frame goggles? My Jewishness, my troublesome Jewishness, that, conveniently, no one knew about here?" Kalman Naves writes about the difficult and often confusing issue of Jewish identity, in a world where only Protestants and Catholics survive with impunity. Her attempt to come to terms with her...ancestry is a marvel of equivocation. The variety of paths taken by her family - moving to Israel, assimilating in England or maintaining their Jewish identity in Canada - illustrate various choices made by European Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

One of the central stories of the book is Shoshanna's decision to stay with the man whose child she was carrying. Her first husband (who was believed to have died on the Russian front) returned unexpectedly, after she had already established a relationship with an elderly widower. Shoshanna accuses her daughter of forcing this choice upon her, and Kalman Naves contemplates how she, as a mere zygote in her mother's body, could have influenced this earth-shattering decision. The intricate and subtle play of family life in dangerous and difficult times is the narrative thread of the story. Shoshanna's incredible courage and strength are balanced by her constant need for attention and her lack of sensitivity for Kalman Naves's father -- the man who stood by her, regardless of his own torment, in a new, sometimes bewildering land.

 Kalman Naves's father was 51 and her mother 38 when they arrived in Canada, and the power shift between them was to be a lasting one. When they left Hungary, Kalman Naves's father had said to Shoshanna: "This far I have brought you myself. To the edges of my world. From here on, you're our captain." The remarkable truth about their relationship is revealed at the very end of this book. Kalman Naves also conveys the lives of her beautiful aunts and their many suitors. She retells the sad marriage of her mother's oldest sister, and the tragedy of sister Lilli, mysteriously dead before the war. The demise of her father's mad aunts is both comic and dreadful. They are fully realized in an impasto of delicious details.

This true story is beyond fiction and greater than mere biography. Kalman Naves has given us an epic, rich in historical scope and peopled with fascinating characters. Particularly touching are the detailed physical descriptions of the men in this book, measured by the very critical eyes and Hungarian standards of the outrageous women of this family.... The myriad Hungarian names and objects in the first chapters are worth slogging past. The English literature that has emanated from Montreal since the middle of the last century has been bereft of believable portrayals of women. Kalman Naves has rewarded us with a truly complex and courageous heroine, something that has been all too rare in the male-dominated English-language literature of Montreal of recent decades.  

Shoshanna is a survivor, a warrior and a mother. Anna Fuerstenberg is a Montreal playwright, director and performer who was born in a refugee camp.


This review was published in The Gazette (Montreal), Sept. 6, 2003. Published here with the permission of the author Anna Fuerstenberg and Edie Austin, Books Editor, The Gazette.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2003.
All rights reserved.