Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war. Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah. His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically. These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah. But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations. Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides. He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see. Conflicts ensue. There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems. Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.
Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee. He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back. The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face. Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy. They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story. The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story. After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast. That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.
I recommend this book. Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.
Thomas Keneally has written a memorable novel, Shame and the Captives. Set in Australia, away from the fighting during World War II, this novel focuses on prisoners of war held in a prison camp in Australia, as well as some Australians who have husbands and sons held in Axis prisoner of war camps. Apparently some Japanese prisoners of war actually did break out of their Australian prison camp during World War II, and this is a fictionalized account of that break out. As always Keneally focuses on what his characters are feeling and why they are doing what they do, and there are a wealth of personalities in play. The Japanese prisoners can scarcely believe they have been captured instead of killed, and basically feel their lives are over. Prisoners from Korea and Italy are more stoic about their present circumstances and ultimately more optimistic that they will have a future. Alice, the major female character is a young Australian bride whose husband went to war and was soon captured. She doesn’t know what to feel and is trying to find her way. The Australian officers running the camp seem uncomfortable with their situation and take an instant dislike to each other. Their hostility to each other is more intense than any feelings they might have toward their prisoners.
This book presents an odd juxtaposition of characters in an unfamiliar (to me) setting. People are doing their jobs and are careful to treat the prisoners carefully for a number of reasons: the prison officials in this book aren’t motivated by cruelty, they are acutely aware of the Red Cross’s requirements and they are particularly motivated to treat their Japanese prisoners well so that their own sons held in captivity won’t face reprisals. This makes for a very interesting book showing aspects of the “War at Home” that aren’t frequently addressed.
Finally, it is impossible to write about Thomas Keneally and a fictionalized novel based on wartime events without mentioning his epic novel Schindler’s List. To see the movie Schindler’s List is to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust and to recognize some of the heroic rescuers. To read the book, is to delve into why Oskar Schindler, of all unlikely people, was moved to take such imaginative and heroic actions. And then there is the next question, if Schindler did it, why were so few others similarly motivated. All this is by way of saying that if you haven’t read Schindler’s List, you really need to do that.
Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia. The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point. Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.
Ani Lachlan is the young widow. She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living. Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian. Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.
The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books. Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community. Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud. In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance. They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.
I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed. Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories. They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them. The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.
I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife, as well as Small Mercies. These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.
The British actor David Niven was a Hollywood star of the 1940’s and 1950’s. His portrayal of a naive and uptight bishop in The Bishop’s Wife is one of my all-time favorite character parts. Niven was not only an Academy Award winning actor — he could also write. His books were as urbane and funny as the parts he often played. Niven had already published two memoirs, the very witty and packed-with-Hollywood-gossip The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses, when he wrote his first novel, Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly. This is a highly enjoyable love story set in war torn Britain during the Second World War. But when the war ends, the book and its leading actors go careening to Hollywood in the era of the big studios. The two settings couldn’t be more different. A warm and noble humanity pervades wartime London, but once the characters get to Hollywood, Niven lets it rip. The producers, writers and money men are gleefully portrayed as completely amoral and not very bright. Niven really has a field day, and there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy a veteran actor’s take on his industry.
This book is by no means a classic, but it is a great read, and Niven does a great job setting the stage and providing an entertaining love story.