October 14: “Heirlooms” by Rachel Hall

Happy Friday, Story366! If you’ve been following this blog the last week, you know that it’s officially turned into a dual blog for both the Cubs’ playoff run and for your daily dose of short stories. Just as an update, the Dodgers beat the Nationals last night, so it’s LA versus Chicago for senior circuit dominance. I had no real preference for which team won, as it’s dangerous to ask for something, because you just might get what you ask for. In other words, if I’d have thought one team was easier to beat, and then that team won, then … okay, I’m getting a bit deep into analysis here. The long and the short of it is, the Cubs need to beat this Dodgers team four times in the next ten days and I think the Cubs can do it. I like that the Dodgers are one of those original nineteenth-century teams, that this is an old-school matchup. I like that the Dodgers had to burn their ace, Clayton Kershaw, twice against the Nats, plus once more last night in relief. I like that the Dodgers had, hands down, the best announcer in the history of sports announcing, Vin Scully, but am sad that he’s retired now and decided not to call the playoffs. I would have genuinely put on the radio feed of him doing the game and put my TV on mute, just to hear the master at work, for one more series. Maybe it’s just as well, as I don’t need to bring any mojo to the Dodgers at this point. They are now the enemy. Vin Scully, congratulations on your unbelievable career, but for the next ten days, we cannot be friends.

For today’s post, I read from Rachel Hall’s new collection, Heirlooms, out from BkMk Press, the latest winner of their G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. I’d not read any work by Hall before, though a lot of these stories appeared in prominent literary journals. So I came in not knowing what to expect, and like so many times during this project, I was treated to what others had recognized for some time, Hall’s clear talent.

Heirlooms is a collection of interconnected stories, most of them about a particular Jewish family, living in France before World War II, including a few who escape to California in 1939, a good time to head to the States. I read the title story, “Heirlooms,” first, which I’ll talk about today, but that story, in the middle of the book, picks up right when this family has left their home country. I backtracked then and read the opening piece, “Saint-Malo, 1939,” which starts us off chronologically, but also establishes the setting and this family. The main character, Lise, must deal with the impending death of her sister, Esther, who is dying from cancer, at the same time things with the Nazis are getting intense. Lise has to go to her sister, comfort her as she dies, but also take charge of Esther’s daughter, Eugenie, who has also recently lost her father. I then jumped ahead to the last story, “In the Cemeteries of Saint-Malo,” in which Eugenie, or “Genny,” is now 58, returning to the country from which she fled fifty years prior. Genny wants to find her mother’s grave, which, she discovers, may be one last defeat for her and her mother in their native town. So I more or less cheated and experienced the entire arc of this story’s family, in this particular French town, which is cool, but you know, a lot like skipping ahead to the end. Hmph.

“Heirlooms,” though, our featured story today, doesn’t necessarily propel this generational narrative particularly far. What we get in this story instead is impact, Hall letting giving us a list, basically, of what this family has left behind. The first line reads, “They left behind furniture,” and then Hall lists, in great detail, all the pieces of furniture they’ve abandoned in Saint-Malo. Of course, each piece isn’t just furniture, but carries with it an anecdote, a backstory, something heart-wrenching to walk away from. As a collector/amateur horder, those kinds of things hit me particularly hard, and I don’t even have the emotional ties to these armoires and bookshelves that Hall’s characters do.

As you might guess, this story isn’t only about furniture, but about things more important. Lise’s husband, Jean, has to abandon his father’s bakery, which he inherited and was supposed to run forever. They have to abandon their language, learn English instead of French. And most of all, they have to abandon people. Jean is not Jewish, only Lise, so his family isn’t leaving. Everyone knows they may never see each other again. Lise had already left Latvia, for similar reasons, and has not spoken to her mother since, but now she’s running even further away. This story is a reminder of what it meant for people to flee the Nazis, why it was such a tough choice, back when nobody knew about the Holocaust, what exactly was going to happen, why so many people chose to stay behind. “Heirlooms” is powerful, Hall expertly conveying that message, the impact of this decision haunting these characters forever.

To note, the story is told, at least in part, in third person plural, which is rare in fiction, as a lot of sentences and paragraphs begin with phrases like, “They left behind furniture …. ” and “They left friends ….” Hall then lists the things they left behind. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be because the story reads a lot like “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, only instead of listing things that a platoon of grunts carries around with them, using those items to characterize each soldier, Hall uses furniture and buildings for the same effect. I like this perspective, plus, as a writing prof, it’s always fun to come across stories that use the seldom-used POVs, to share them with students and say, “Look what she did!” I think I’ll share “Heirlooms” with students, not only for this craft anomaly, but because it’s such a good story otherwise, too.

I feel like I’ve cheated myself a bit here, jumping around Heirlooms, as I’ve read the beginning, middle, and end of Lise and Genny’s story. According to the back cover, though, there’s other perspectives here, other stories, so I’m intrigued as to what else Rachel Hall has done, how she’s rounded out the big picture, who else she chronicles. This is a solid book, about a solemn topic, but I enjoyed reading from it. Good stuff.

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