A Family of Strangers (review)
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A Family of Strangers. By Deborah Tall. Sarabande Books, 2006. 309 pages, paper, $16.95.

I thought I knew what to expect in Deborah Tall's third nonfiction book. I had read The Island of the White Cow, a memoir of living on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, and From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place, a book about learning to live in central New York State, where she taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I admired her as a nonfictionist of place and knew that the book would include her powerful essay "Memory's Landscapes," which had been originally published in Tikkun and which I would reprint in an anthology I was editing. So I was eager for her book to come out and had no doubt that I would find much to admire about the book.

In fact, it far surpassed my expectations.

It isn't a typical memoir, although its issues are reminiscent of other memoirs about family. In this one a daughter curious about her father's family history knows that she is expected to settle for his claims that he was orphaned young and remembers no family other than the one that adopted him. But the daughter is persistent about uncovering what she comes to realize is not forgotten but secret and she is alert to opportunities to get past her father's guardedness. She suspects that one of the bonds between her parents is a willingness to close the doors to the past and withhold information. She only meets her maternal grandfather when he's aged and frail and on his deathbed, only learns of certain aunts when she overhears her parents discussing their deaths. She continues her research after her father's death and, through the help of his newly discovered first cousin, begins to [End Page 175] find out more and more about the family. In time living relatives turn up and she establishes ties to them. Eventually she continues her search in Europe in the little village of Ladyzin, in the Ukraine, where her family originated. She finds she is tied to a web of people that throughout her life she never knew existed and to a community of eastern European Jews her father never told her about.

In a bare-bones outline like this the book seems to tell a not-unfamiliar story, the search for family history. At one point Tall, after discussing the ways her parents are typical of their generation, declares, "I am likewise typical of my generation—genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the nation, after gardening." Genealogical research is detective work, the discovery of clues, the systematic search for artifacts and evidence, the serendipitous blundering onto vital details, the summarizing of the case. And to a certain extent this is what the book does. We follow the author's quest from her childhood suspicions that there's more to her family history than what she's been told through her incremental gathering of evidence to a point where she knows she is debunking myths and contradicting her father's testimony. She writes that her questioning "feels like a violation of the shell of oblivion my father erected around himself." She realizes that she is "finding what he never wished to make known, even to himself," and observes, "It is like having a secret from him, about him."

Memoir often arrives at this point, the moment where the memoirist violates an unspoken compact with a parent, discovers aspects of a parent's life that had been withheld, placed off-limits, undisclosed—at least, or perhaps especially, from children. These are not necessarily dark, terrible secrets, and possibly the information has been inadvertently withheld—at one point Tall recognizes in her daughter's outrage over the discovery of an unknown relative in her father's family that she and her husband have also been unintentionally unforthcoming about their own history and that her daughter's reactions replay hers from a generation earlier—but the information is always a revelation of the unknown, and it changes the way the investigator views her own life as...


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