Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Heirlooms by Rachel Hall

The baby carriage and the layette of gowns and sweaters she’d assembled were taken away while she convalesced.  For this Sylvie is grateful.  The dogs are gone, too, and though she doesn’t ask about them, for a long time she will expect their sharp energetic barks, the frantic swinging of their tails as she moves about the yard.

This collection of linked short stories won the GS Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction run by BkMk Press last year.  I received a copy for entering the contest and not winning, so there may be some sour grapes involved in my reading.  Heirlooms follows an extended family of Jewish refugees through their escape from Europe in the 1930s and into the generations that succeed them in both America and Israel.

I most liked the early stories that dealt with surviving and escaping the rising tide of anti-Semitism in France.  Hall captures the way that petty jealousies and fears can make minor disputes life threatening under the right political situations.  These are the stories that most made me think about America’s current treatment of refugees and how our own pettiness is affecting people.  There is also a wonderful story at the end of the collection in which the adult granddaughter of the survivors becomes entangled in the grief of a makeshift gang who mourn the death of a member by building a tacky roadside memorial on her lawn.

The book is weakest in the way that linked short story collections are often weak – stories that advance the larger narrative but don’t work very well as stories on their own.  There are also moments when I am disappointed that Hall has cast her net so widely: by following the characters for three generations she has diluted the power of the early stories as much as she has extended it towards hope.

However, I enjoyed the collection for its high points, early and late.  Hall has tackled large ideas and embedded them in the lives of real people, succeeding in getting us to remember the past and think clearly about the present.  I can stand losing to that.

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