The End of Her: Rac­ing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder

By – May 16, 2022

Part mem­oir and part mys­tery is how to best describe Wayne Hoffman’s new book, The End of Her: Rac­ing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Mur­der. Uti­liz­ing his skills as both a jour­nal­ist and a nov­el­ist, Hoff­man recounts his quest to solve the mur­der of his great-grand­moth­er, killed in her sleep in Win­nipeg in 1913, and to share his find­ings with his moth­er before her mind is rav­aged by Alzheimer’s Dis­ease. In the process, the author’s search for truth explores issues of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the immi­grant expe­ri­ence, famil­ial oblig­a­tion, love, and loss.

The author’s search begins after he tells the improb­a­ble sto­ry of his grandmother’s death to a room full of jour­nal­ists. Skep­ti­cal him­self, but encour­aged by his col­leagues, Hoff­man begins to unpack the sto­ry by request­ing his great-grandmother’s death cer­tifi­cate. When it arrives in the mail and reads “’bul­let wound through the brain — homi­ci­dal,’” the author is hooked, and the quest begins.

As The End of Her con­tin­ues, Hoff­man weaves chap­ters about his mother’s decline and his fam­i­ly his­to­ry into a sin­gle nar­ra­tive. He includes fam­i­ly trees, pho­tos, and news­pa­per clip­pings, both in Eng­lish and Yid­dish, to add to the reader’s inter­est and under­stand­ing. Dur­ing his inves­ti­ga­tion, he unrav­els addi­tion­al fam­i­ly mys­ter­ies and paints a vivid pic­ture of life in Winnipeg’s thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the peri­ods before and after World War One and the influen­za out­break of 1918. He also explores the rela­tion­ship between the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties of Win­nipeg and the dis­trust, anti­semitism, and bias­es that per­sist­ed among the groups that set­tled in Canada.

While The End of Her does not offer the sat­is­fac­tion of a neat­ly resolved mur­der mys­tery, it does offer the read­er a fas­ci­nat­ing and well-writ­ten sto­ry that keeps one’s inter­est to the very last page. While unproven, the author’s final analy­sis of the unlike­ly events of 1913 is com­pelling. Equal­ly com­pelling are Hoffman’s moti­va­tions for writ­ing this sto­ry: to share his family’s rich and unex­plored his­to­ry, to hon­or his moth­er and cap­ture her heart­break­ing decline, and to under­stand him­self a lit­tle bet­ter. He is suc­cess­ful in each of these goals and read­ers are enriched by it.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Wayne Hoffman

  1. The nar­ra­tive that dri­ves the book is sparked by a sin­gle pho­to­graph. Do you have a pho­to­graph that con­tains entire fam­i­ly sto­ries for you — a pic­ture that would be the begin­ning of your own book? In an age when we take pic­tures with our phones and post them pub­licly by the thou­sand, are pho­tographs less pre­cious than they used to be? Or is it the oppo­site: that now, we can cre­ate entire nar­ra­tives from hun­dreds of pho­tographs, rather than rely­ing on one or two in a pho­to album on a bookshelf?

  2. The author trav­els across West­ern Cana­da to see where his great-grand­par­ents lived. Have you ever trav­eled to the place where your par­ents — or grand­par­ents, or great-grand­par­ents — grew up? Had your par­ents told you sto­ries about those places, and did going there change how you pic­tured them in your mind?

  3. Being named in a relative’s mem­o­ry is a recur­ring theme in the book. Are you named in someone’s mem­o­ry, or hon­or? Does it make you feel clos­er to that per­son? How much do you know about that per­son — and do you know more than you would if you hadn’t been named for them?

  4. The author relies on many sources of infor­ma­tion while inves­ti­gat­ing the events of a cen­tu­ry ago: offi­cial doc­u­ments, news­pa­per reports, rel­a­tives’ per­son­al mem­o­ries. Which of these do you think is the most trust­wor­thy or accu­rate? The least? Over the past cen­tu­ry, have these sources of infor­ma­tion got­ten more or less trustworthy?

  5. In the book, the res­i­dents of Winnipeg’s North End pri­mar­i­ly spoke oth­er lan­guages — Yid­dish, Pol­ish — while local police offi­cers and jour­nal­ists only spoke Eng­lish. What dif­fer­ence do you think this made in the inves­ti­ga­tion, from the ini­tial report­ing to the inquest? How much do you think this is still an issue today for immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties deal­ing with author­i­ties, when it comes to report­ing crime or seek­ing justice?

  6. What role do you think anti­semitism played in the mur­der of Sarah Fein­stein? Do you think it played a role in how the crime was han­dled — by police, jour­nal­ists, jurors, or the gen­er­al pub­lic? Would that be dif­fer­ent today?

  7. If you knew about a sim­i­lar event in your own fam­i­ly his­to­ry — a crime, a trag­ic event, some­thing that had been cov­ered up — how would you go about find­ing out more infor­ma­tion? If oth­er rel­a­tives didn’t want to dig up the past,” would you do it anyway?

  8. In the years after the mur­der, Sarah Feinstein’s fam­i­ly scat­ters; cousins don’t know each oth­er at all, and even sib­lings rarely see each oth­er. In an age of social media and instant, inex­pen­sive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, do you think fam­i­lies stay in clos­er con­tact than they did a cen­tu­ry ago? What dif­fer­ence does that make for fam­i­lies shar­ing sto­ries and infor­ma­tion about the past?

  9. Is it impor­tant to you to keep in con­tact with your cousins? Sec­ond cousins? Third cousins? Do you make an effort to reach out find more dis­tant rel­a­tives, and stay in touch? Why or why not?

  10. The author’s moth­er is suf­fer­ing from demen­tia, which they lat­er real­ize is Alzheimer’s dis­ease. How would the sto­ry have been dif­fer­ent if she’d been suf­fer­ing from a dis­ease that pri­mar­i­ly had phys­i­cal effects, rather than mem­o­ry-relat­ed ones? What if she’d been per­fect­ly healthy? Would the inves­ti­ga­tion into the past have hap­pened at all?