The sudden death of Deborah Tall’s father and a few newly discovered mangled pictures salvaged from behind a dresser drawer will serve to move this elegiac poetic memoir to its bittersweet ending. A chance call from a cousin one year later provides this gifted poet-writer with the needed link to connect the few existing dots in the virtual reconstruction of her family, the Talesnicks, an all but dispersed Jewish family whose struggle to survive pogroms and world wars ultimately brings them from the Ukraine to the United States. We learn that a comfortable suburban childhood in Levittown, Long Island in the 50’s brought with it a post-war requirement of silence and conformity, the layered evasions now muzzling even further her family’s 19th century shtetl terrors and sorrowful losses and secrets. Fascinated, we watch as Tall fastidiously labors to uncover “the hidden,” her profound and beautiful language and sense of urgency propelling us. Her magnificent retelling is at once poetic, multileveled, and interspersed freely with quotes from Susan Sontag, Brian Friel, Shakespeare, Irving Howe, and Adrienne Rich, to name but a few who have also struggled to uncover beguiling memories and haunting images of past lives, voices that now function “akin to a Greek chorus.”
Deborah Tall’s memoir was twelve years in the making; the “poetic prose,” as she chooses to call it, is what resulted in changing her style, which compelled her over time to discard several hundred pages in favor of a minimalist narrative of concision and understatement.
Deborah Tall died as I was completing the first reading of this profound and moving memoir. Sadly, at book’s end, Tall, finding herself sitting in the Jewish Ukrainian cemetery in Ladyzin surrounded by tombstones of her family where she had wrenchingly tracked them down — in death — is “rendered cubist, any reflection of myself distorted…composed of fragments, ragged as the shattered edges of these gravestones.” She is comforted that she “can steer [her] own ship, now. Like Odysseus, I [have] been struggling for decades to find [my] own way back.”
Coming across Tall’s obituary, I reread A Family of Strangers and wept anew, reading her final words, “A story encompasses us, justifies our stay, prepares our leaving.” Notes.