Spooling back through sixty years of history from California to New York, Haifa, Canada and Munich, Huston has fashioned a remarkable story that travels the landscape of family from one generation to another, each part illuminating and profound, from Solly (2004), Randall (1982), Sadie (1962) and Kristina (1944-45). At the heart of all is the devastation of Hitler’s hubris, his attempt to alter the face of history, reaching far into the future of a family whose origins have been lost by time and the chaos of world events.
Inhabiting each character in his or her time frame perfectly frames the politics and social realities of each era, reconstructing utterly believable scenarios and how children adapt to circumstances not of their making. Subject to the eccentricities of parenting, children take their cues from all the important adults, desperately seeking to translate their paths in the world: “The truth about the world is that pain lurks in it everywhere.”
The genius of this remarkable novel is that it is told from the perspective of impressionable youngsters. Meeting each character, from the present back to each generation, we make assumptions based on each child’s experiences.
As facts reveal, the skewed versions of childhood are limited by age and incident, by the actions and beliefs of the important adults in their lives and the need to make order out of chaos or to frame questions within understandable circumstances. Interpreting a nuanced world, a child is restricted by imagination; no matter how creative, there are realities too difficult to be sorted by immature minds.
Yet each impressionable child does make assumptions, carrying images and experiences into adulthood that are buried in the terrain of childhood: “How can we build a future together if we don’t know the truth about our past?”
Sol is a child of his generation (2004), bright, with an exaggerated sense of himself and a mother steeped in parenting classes who monitors his every move yet underestimates her son’s deviousness. Randall, Sol’s father (1982), is deeply confused by the family’s year in Haifa, where he attends a Jewish academy and learns firsthand of the enmity between Palestine and Israel, as well as the devastating effects of war.
Sadie (1962) is perhaps the most revelatory character, an opinionated lecturer as an adult but a troubled, unhappy child raised first by strict grandparents, then a free-thinking mother, a vocalist of some renown. Finally, there is Kristina (1944-45), who holds the key to the story that binds one generation of this family to another, the heart of the fault line that fills the years of heartbreak, discontent and a profound sadness.