When journalist Hadley Freeman set out to write about her enigmatic French Jewish grandmother Sala, she thought she would write about Sala and her quintessentially French fashion sense, which her grandmother maintained despite living for decades in America and being surrounded by decidedly less chic company. Instead, Freeman ended up writing a dual biography of Sala and her brothers, who remained in France. It’s a heartbreaking and inspiring story about World War II, the Holocaust, the French Resistance, and yes, French fashion and culture (Picasso and Dior both make appearances), but more than anything, it is a story about family, secrets, social mobility, assimilation, and identity. I’ve been wanting to read this book since I read an excerpt published earlier this year, and it did not disappoint. Thanks so much to Julie for ordering it for me!
The story Freeman tells, though rooted in Poland in the period during and immediately after World War I and in France before, during, and after World War II, is an eerily timely one. But what makes it so memorable is that it is such a human look at history, especially in Freeman’s affectionate but honest depictions of the elegant, often cryptic Sala and her brothers–shy, brilliant Henri; gentle, ill-fated Jacques; and brash, charismatic Alex.
The siblings all immigrated to Paris as young adults from their native Polish shtetl (village) in the 1920s after World War I and assimilated, to varying degrees. But then, in the late 1930s, before the next war, the family pressured Sala, against her wishes, into immigrating to America when they saw the opportunity to save her from what they knew was an ominous and inevitable something that was headed their way, but the ramifications (emotional, psychological, and physical) of that decision–and several others–reverberated throughout the family for decades.
They sent Sala, against her wishes, to America before the war when they saw the opportunity to save her from what they knew was an ominous and inevitable something, but the ramifications (emotional, psychological, and physical) of that decision–and several others–reverberated throughout the family for decades.
I think family memoirs can sometimes be compromised by an unwillingness by some authors to embrace the complexity of beloved relatives or be muzzled by an over-reliance on memory. Freeman avoids both of these pitfalls by extensively researching everyone, even the stories she thought she knew, and the result is a loving, haunting, well-researched, thought-provoking history of the Glass family, World War II, and modern Jewish history.
I’ve noticed during our curbside service that a lot of World War II-themed books are circulating heavily right now–I can’t even explain why, but I’ve also found myself drawn to reading about World War II during these uncertain times–and if you’re also scrambling to find something to read about that time period, definitely give this book a try. Highly recommended.
What subjects are you drawn to reading about during these quaran-times? What’s your favorite book about World War II? What new books are you reading? Tell us in the comments! And as always, check out this link to our online library catalog to learn more about any item and place holds.