Helmi’s Shad­ow: A Jour­ney of Sur­vival From Rus­sia to East Asia to the Amer­i­can West

  • Review
By – June 27, 2022

In Helmi’s Shad­ow, David Hor­gan traces the jour­ney of his grand­moth­er (Rachel) and moth­er (Hel­mi) as they cross Asia and even­tu­al­ly set­tle in the Unit­ed States. Hor­gan tells this sto­ry with admi­ra­tion and thor­ough research, skill­ful­ly inter­weav­ing Rachel and Helmi’s bio­graph­i­cal details with world events.

Part One, the Far East” is rich with geopol­i­tics. With her fam­i­ly, Rachel flees pogroms in Odessa as a child and takes the Trans Siber­ian Rail­road to set­tle in the Chi­nese city of Harbin, an inter­na­tion­al refuge. Life and love take Rachel to Japan, where she gives birth to her daugh­ter, Hel­mi (whose name is Japan­ese for pearl”). Lat­er, fac­ing tragedy and polit­i­cal insta­bil­i­ty, Rachel and Hel­mi make their way to the slums of Shang­hai, Chi­na, where they spent most of Helmi’s child­hood. Tech­ni­cal­ly state­less, moth­er and daugh­ter move again and man­age to sur­vive World War II main­ly in the Japan­ese port city of Kobe. After the war, they meet Amer­i­can sol­diers. Hel­mi, a resource­ful poly­glott, aca­d­e­m­ic over­achiev­er, and pret­ty to boot, man­ages to find employ­ment help­ing the US Army.

Where­as the first part of Helmi’s Shad­ow equips read­ers with rel­e­vant cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion, Part Two, Amer­i­ca” — which takes place most­ly in Reno, Neva­da — leans on assumed shared cul­tur­al ref­er­ences. One recur­ring top­ic is Helmi’s mar­riage to the author’s father, Bill Hor­gan, a devout Catholic. Though not reli­gious­ly inclined, Hel­mi val­ues her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and push­es back grace­ful­ly when she encoun­ters anti-Jew­ish sen­ti­ment in her adopt­ed coun­try, includ­ing with­in her extend­ed fam­i­ly. She nav­i­gates mar­riage and rais­es their chil­dren in a way that respects her husband’s deep faith while main­tain­ing her integri­ty and Jew­ish identity.

The sto­ry takes on a more casu­al tone, even­tu­al­ly incor­po­rat­ing Horgan’s own mem­o­ries about his child­hood and beyond. Horgan’s per­cep­tions about Helmi’s feel­ings and cal­cu­la­tions are always gen­er­ous; even when Hel­mi suf­fers great­ly and becomes with­drawn, her son instinc­tive­ly con­sid­ers her essence and gives her the ben­e­fit of the doubt. The rela­tion­ship between Horgan’s fam­i­ly and his grand­moth­er Rachel is con­sid­er­ably more fraught. Whether because of her trau­ma, men­tal ill­ness, or a com­bi­na­tion, Rachel is dif­fi­cult to care for, and the author explores feel­ings of resent­ment and guilt.

Helmi’s Shad­ow is not only cap­ti­vat­ing as a biog­ra­phy; it also pro­vides a study in chas­ing and con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Bruce Feil­er has famous­ly researched the pos­i­tive impact of devel­op­ing a fam­i­ly nar­ra­tive, find­ing that an oscil­lat­ing (rather than ascend­ing or descend­ing) nar­ra­tive is most healthy because it helps us access stores of grit and resilience when we face chal­lenges. Rachel and Helmi’s saga makes its way through years of vio­lence and joy­ful con­tent­ment, and even­tu­al­ly to the chal­lenges and rewards Hel­mi and Rachel find in mid­cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can upper-mid­dle class life. The author’s project of trac­ing his roots with­in his fam­i­ly and then writ­ing this his­tor­i­cal­ly ground­ed biog­ra­phy is an inter­est­ing and com­mend­able trib­ute to his matri­archs that will encour­age read­ers’ sense of con­nec­tion to the past.

Lind­sey Bod­ner is a writer and an edu­ca­tion foun­da­tion direc­tor. She lives in Man­hat­tan with her family.

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