A Fam­i­ly of Strangers

Deb­o­rah Tall
  • Review
By – November 16, 2011

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.

Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

Discussion Questions