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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. Nina Willner. William Morrow, 2016 (reprint edition).


"None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free." ~ Pearl S. Buck (epigraph to one of the book's chapters)


Forty Autumns is a meticulously researched story of the desperate human desire, even need, for freedom. The text weaves back and forth between the 40-year history of East Germany and the very personal history of the author's family during that period. In the first few pages, I wasn't sure how well that structure was going to work, but Willner crafted it masterfully. I stayed engaged the entire time and learned a great deal about a period of Germany's history I knew very little about. The country's history provided a profoundly graphic context for what was happening within the family. And the family story made the country's history starkly real.


Briefly, East Germany came under Soviet rule after WWII, whereas West Germany was under the control of the US, Britain, and France. In East Germany, the totalitarian government took draconian measures, among them Stasi, the secret police rivalling the Gestapo, to enforce adherence to hardline Communist principles. The regime did away with more and more freedoms, both physical and mental, indoctrinating the populace from an early age into the approved way to think and act. As a result, thousands of East Germans tried to flee the country, which reflected poorly on the government, which then reacted by enacting more and more measures to keep their citizens contained. When people failed in their attempts to escape, they could be shot, imprisoned, or have the few freedoms left to them taken away.   


As I read, I realized with some embarrassment that I had traveled three times in West Germany while the country was divided, and I had given no thought to the tragedies occuring on on the other side of the wall. As far as I was concerned, I was in a country called Germany, using my college-girl German. Period. Of course I knew that that East and West Germany existed, but there was so much I didn't know. I'm sure, unbeknownst to me, I blindly encountered people who were excruciatingly separated from people and places they loved, now on the other side of what was known worldwide as the Iron Curtain.


Nina Willner's book was published after her time as a US intelligence officer in East and West Berlin. She had to have spent years among documents and in interviews to thoroughly research the family story and the broader one. Her mother was the only one of nine children in her family of origin who had been able to escape and then was cut off from her grandparents, parents and siblings for the next forty years. Few letters or packages she sent to them or letters they sent to her, ever made it through. The family's intent to remain connected was steadfast and courageous. And within East Germany, the mother of the family built what she called the "Family Wall," which allowed members to maintain integrity at home while surviving outside by going along with what was required of them, with as much truthfulness as possible. How this family held together was a stark reminder of how my own family, with the freedom to choose unity, has allowed much smaller things to divide us.


Having written a biography of Viktor Frankl, I was necessarily very familiar with pre- and post-WWII history, as well as the events of the war itself, but Forty Autumns made me realize how little I knew about the Cold War and its dire effects on people's lives. I had a personal interest in this story because I knew a man, when we were both in our early twenties, whose father had carried him, as an infrant, out of East Berlin on his shoulders through the sewers to West Berlin. I see now, what a remarkable lack of curiosity I had then about Rudi's story.


The intense desire for freedom that causes people to risk their lives does seem, as Pearl Buck wrote, incomprehensible to those of us who have always lived free. I've been guilty of internally scoffing when people praise the freedom we have in the US, conscious of the many restrictions marginalized people in this country face on a daily basis. Forty Autumns reminded me of my own time living illegally in Denmark and how that restricted my freedom but to such a lesser degree as to seem inconsequential. My ability to think my own thoughts was never impacted, and I appreciate after reading this book how much more cruicial it is to have freedom of thought than freedom of movement, although we would wish for both.


The book also reminded me of my work with students and families who were undocumented immigrants in the US. These families live in constant fear of deportation. They don't dare to contact police when they are victims of some of the most violent crimes. Life is so difficult, so marginal for them here, that I often marvel that they choose to stay. It makes me aware, without knowing details, of how horrific things must have been for them in their home countries. My own experience and theirs influence my belief that we should be free to move among countries, free to live where we choose. My friend Suzanne once said I would make a good anarchist. I think her basis for saying it was because of this sort of thinking and because she sees me as having a moral compass, which of course is essential if an anarchist society is not to fall into chaos.  


Forty Autumns moved me far more deeply that I had expected, bringing me to tears several times, and it, too, contributes to my belief that we should all be able to simply be citizens of the world. To paraphrase Buck, If we have always been free, we do not begin to fathom the power that the hope for freedom holds for those who are not free.






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The Five Wounds. Kirstin Valdez Quade. W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.


I used to live in a village in Northern New Mexico that had a morada. On Good Friday, which is today, April 15, 2022, in the church year, I would witness streams of people, people I knew, from the surrounding villages making their way on foot up to the little  stone and clay Oratorio de Jesus Nazareno. There were the old and bent with their worn canes, young women pushing strollers, my propane man in his dark green coveralls, teenagers with their gang tattoos, all making holy pilgrimage.


Historically a morada was a meeting place for Penitentes, a Catholic male lay sect that included in its worship a Good Friday reinactment of the crucifiction. The Five Wounds takes place in a fictional Northern New Mexico town near the real town of Española, which has a role in the book. Its main character is a perpetual screw-up––a loveable, irresponsible alcoholic, whose mother presses her uncle to give him the honored role of Jesus in the Good Friday reinactment, hoping it will inspire change in him. Amadeo, wanting to be admired, chooses to have nails driven through his hands, rather than being roped to the cross. Spoiler: there is a character arc. Amadeo grows. His teen, unmarried, pregnant daughter, who comes to live with him after years of estrangement and is more responsible than he, grows.


There was a lot I loved about the book. I had read a short story collection by the author, which was good, but Five Wounds is several cuts above; Valdez Quade comes into her own in this complex story. Because I spent seven years living in Northern New Mexico, my funny bone was frequently tickled, and tears of empathy flowed. Because I taught high risk youth for so long (in Northern New Mexico and places far-flung), I knew the authenticity of the young women in the school for pregnant and parenting teens. I recommend the book to New Mexicans especially, to anyone who wants to know New Mexico better, and really to anyone who loves a well crafted, all too human story. 


There are surpassing realizations to be gleaned and gems of quotes. Maybe most significant to me, because I have long had difficulty with the meaning the church gives to Good Friday, was Amadeo's epiphany, a year after being Jesus. It has a ring of truth to me: "To feel a little of what Christ felt, Tío Tíve said over a year ago. And what Christ felt was love. Amadeo doesn't know how he lost track of this. Love: both gift and challenge." The revelation that more than sorrow, more than pain, more even than sacrifice, it was love.


One of the main characters is moving toward death through a good portion of the book, and I will leave you with this: "This is death, then, a brief spot of light on earth extinguished, a rippling point of energy swept clear. A kiss, a song, the warm circle of a stranger's arms––these things and others––the whole crush of memory and hope, the constant babble of the mind, everything that composes a person––gone. 

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Louise Erdrich's Latest, THE SENTENCE

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Harper, 2021.
What follows is less a review and more a scattering of notes on ideas that were important to me in my reading of Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence.
Following her post-modern pattern of multiple narrators much less than usual, this book has a central narrator, Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who lives with her husband Pollux (what's already not to love when a character has such a name?), also Indigenous. Tookie works in a bookstore clearly modeled on Erdrich's own Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, where much of the book takes place. The real and the literary bookstores both specialize in Native literature and art, and the owner of the novel's bookstore is even named Louise. Louise has mostly cameo but significant appearances in the story. The book definitely made me want to visit the real store, which is totally doable, now that I live in a bordering state.
I've read several recent novels where the coming pandemic is hinted at, but in The Sentence, we are plunged into it full-on with all the confusion we experienced in the beginning about how to protect ourselves. Also in real time are the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, a major character in Tookie's narration is dead—a former customer who haunts the bookstore and, specifically Tookie. This is all the summary you're going to get.
The ghost, Flora, is a White wannabe Indian, who fulfills several functions literarily. She serves as a mirror for the Indigenous characters' own identity issues, as she has pasted together an identity from other people's lives in the hope that it will prop up the possibility that she actually is Indigenous. As Penstemon, one of the book sellers, says, "Flora knew there would be a reckoning, that someone… would figure out that she'd pulled together elements of other people's lives to fake her own. The thing is, most of us Indigenous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We've endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives." Flora is also a mirror for me––a White woman who is still, in my seventies, working out my own identity issues.
In this and other Erdrich novels, she gives space to her own ethnically mixed heritage—Ojibwe, German-American, and French. Not all Indigenous authors who are of mixed heritage do this, or if they do, they seem to want to gloss over the non-Indigenous side of who they are. As someone who is culturally but not ethnically mixed, I value this in Erdrich. I feel the complexities of my own life are validated by her, even though that's probably not her intention. In The Sentence, Flora's wannabe status and the identity questions the other characters grapple with as a result of her hanging around in life and in death, bring the issues to the fore. In another neat acknowledgement of the non-Native part of the author's heritage, the bookstore employs a young German man, and Erdrich explains why he's important to the store. All the other employees are Indigenous. In another place, Penstemon is thinking of tattooing her body with red and blue lines to protest the Federal Government's blood quantum rules. The red lines would divide up her Ho-Chunk, Hidatsa, Lakota, and Ojibwe portions, and a blue line would delineate her Norwegian area. Tookie asks where she'd put that blue line. She answers, "Around my heart. I really love my mother." And I loved that.
Tookie and Pollux, who have some wonderful, substantial conversations throughout the book, have a conflict over Flora, and their conflict reflects something I think about. Tookie calls Flora a ghost, and Pollux, influenced by his Indigenous ways, doesn't want to hear it. Throughout the haunting they've been dancing around the subject because of it. There's this lovely conversation between Tookie and Jackie, one of the bookstore employees:

'He won't tolerate talk of ghosts and supernatural business, will he,' said Jackie.
'He said "otherworldly" so he's on guard against himself,' I said. 'He won't talk about that stuff, but he'll talk about the next life. He's setting one up for the both of us.'
'You've got a good husband. How does he go about setting it up?'
'He's pretty much using songs and stories, maybe some work with pipes and feathers.'
'He's a sort of spiritual carpenter.'
I love that idea—a spiritual carpenter.
It was in Minneapolis that George Floyd was murdered by a policeman, setting off huge protests around the world but especially there where the book is set. In this story there is a wonderful sense of community embedded in the protests. Tookie mentions the flags representing different groups that have come together––BLM and Pan African flags, AIM flags, rainbow flags. And true to what I've experienced of traditional Indigenous gatherings, it's the grandmothers who "were putting out the call for us to work with our tobacco, sing healing songs. Now jingle dancers were gathering at the George Floyd memorial." Grandmothers lead. Grandmothers call. Maybe I especially like this because I'm becoming a grandmother, and I hope I can lead now and then for the good.

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