• Review
By – March 12, 2015

It is not giv­ing the sto­ry away if you know right off that one of three Amer­i­can sis­ters liv­ing togeth­er in Man­hat­tan has a tat­too wrapped around her calf that says, the sins of the fathers are vis­it­ed upon the chil­dren to the 3rd & 4th gen­er­a­tions”; or that the sis­ters, the only known sur­viv­ing fourth gen­er­a­tion, have begun writ­ing a mem­oir”; or that in real­i­ty this vol­ume is a sui­cide note, a pact between the sis­ters, to be enact­ed on Decem­ber 311999.

One might think, that’s it, what else is there to know, and put this book down. Keep read­ing! The sins that tran­scend the gen­er­a­tions and weigh on the women are deep, com­pli­cat­ed, and provoca­tive. The sto­ry of four gen­er­a­tions of the Alter fam­i­ly begins just after the uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many, led by Otto Bis­mar­ck, with the last­ing issues of reli­gion vs. nation­al­ism, intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits of the high­est cal­iber, sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ments of unfath­omable pro­por­tion, parental expec­ta­tions, love offered and with­held, love lost, intense grief, and ulti­mate­ly the over­pow­er­ing weight of guilt.

The fam­i­ly tree — use­ful­ly sup­plied at the begin­ning of the book — is large. It starts with Hein­rich Alter as he watch­es his hero Bis­mar­ck march down the boule­vard filled with Heimat (love of home­land). Being Jew­ish is Heinrich’s cul­ture, but being Ger­man is his faith. His son, Lenz (named Lorenz Otto Alter in hon­or of the blond beast”), will go on to be cred­it­ed with the devel­op­ment of nitro­gen syn­the­sis, fer­til­iz­er, pes­ti­cides, chlo­rine gas, Zyk­lon — which became Zyk­lon B, the odor­less gas used to exter­mi­nate the Jews in the gas cham­bers. His­to­ry will debate Lenz’s role: patri­ot or a mon­ster? A sav­ior or a slayer?

Lenz’s son Richard and his fam­i­ly sur­vive the Holo­caust via Paris, Haiti, and final­ly New York, but nev­er escape the par­a­lyz­ing guilt of their father’s work, wit­ting­ly trans­fer­ring this bur­den onto the next generations.

Sis­ters Lady, Vee, and Delph have jour­neyed to their sui­cide des­ti­na­tions not only car­ry­ing the bur­den of their his­to­ry, but defeat­ed by per­son­al cir­cum­stances beyond repair. Strong as their bond is, we hope upon hope that some ratio­nal thought, hid­den strength, or mighty inter­ven­tion will change the end.

As the author tells us, the char­ac­ters are fic­tion­al, but some char­ac­ters and events are inspired by real peo­ple and events. Lenz is mod­eled after Fritz Haber, the Ger­man-Jew­ish sci­en­tist who devel­oped the infa­mous and hor­rif­ic chem­i­cal gas. Albert Ein­stein, who makes an inter­est­ing appear­ance, his fam­i­ly, and their rela­tion­ships are based on his­tor­i­cal information.

Judith Claire Mitchell has giv­en us an intense and mem­o­rable tale, filled with quirky, iron­i­cal­ly amus­ing, but always com­pelling characters.

Relat­ed content:

Read Judith Claire Mitchel­l’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

I’m Telling Everyone

Some Thoughts About Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Novels

Bagels and Groucho

Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

Discussion Questions