Book review: ‘Heirlooms’ by Rachel Hall

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
Rachel Hall, author of “Heirlooms.”
Pamela Frame / Special to the Daily |

Every person alive today carries forth the legacies of those who came before, and those stories and histories are inevitably complex, a mingling of joys and sorrows, all embodying the muddying stamp of history’s conflicts and pivotal world events that alter and influence the course of life. In “Heirlooms,” her recently released collection of short stories, author Rachel Hall takes morsels from her own family’s archives and assembles a narrative that flows like a novel and paints a vivid picture of a not-so-distant transformative past.

As the world holds close the last remaining survivors of World War II and the Holocaust, it is imperative to acknowledge the many lessons that can be learned from those who suffered through the unfathomable horrors of persecution and oppression during the Third Reich’s defilement of Europe. The Jews bore the brunt of Hitler’s twisted world vision, and it is the lives of some of those individuals that Hall honors in her book.

The walled city of Saint Malo in Northern France serves as the setting for the opening and closing bookends of the story, which encompasses four generations of one Jewish family deeply impacted by the violence that engulfed Europe during the 1930s and ’40s. Pulled from real letters and writings of her own family, Hall invites the reader along through the intimate struggles of her ancestors as they did whatever they needed to do to survive in a world that had turned violently against their kind.

The French Resistance is famed for its dogged and effective acts of obstruction and defiance in response to the devastating occupation of France by Hitler’s forces. Part of Hall’s narrative details some of the brave acts of rebellion and sacrifice of those loyalists, and most powerful are the moments when the resistance efforts of the people deeply impact their personal lives and the course of their families’ futures.

Constructing the stories of one generation after another enables Hall to build a stark and powerful tale in which the complexities of each past event flavors the future. The weaving together of the lives and the stories is seamless, like a real reflection of the lattice work of life, where there is no beginning or ending, just a continuation of interconnected and overlapping moments moving forward through the generations.

As the title suggests, what gets left behind, intentionally or not, tells a profoundly moving story. For countless people, World War II meant an abandonment of small treasures and the mundane items of daily life that only take on significance for those who follow. Homes and hearths were left in haste, and the graves of loved ones were abandoned to the hopelessness of war’s ambivalence. Engaging with the personal significance of heirlooms, Hall also reminds the reader of those things that cannot be taken — “the sound of cathedral bells and their reverberations through the narrow cobblestone streets,” or the smell of petrol or the briny tang of an ocean breeze against the ramparts of an ancient coastal city.

Hall reminds us all that for everything that is left behind, an incalculable burden of memories and regrets is carried forward, and for those who survive a war, this is doubly wearying on the soul. For many, an unwelcome heirloom is the pervasive fear of what that war did to them, following them through life like a shadow. “Heirlooms” is powerful and at times heartrending, and serves as a beautifully rendered homage to its author’s roots as well as to mankind’s cultural legacy.

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