My reading list is usually determined by a certain serendipity of deadlines, recommendations, book covers that jump out of the pile and the lure of whatever arrives in the mail that day. Yes, I receive new books almost every day.
So that’s how I ended up reading Roger Cohen’s “The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” and Hannah Nordhaus’s “American Ghost: The True Story of a Family’s Haunted Past” — memoirs set a century apart –- back to back. Nothing planned about this, but the connections between the women at the heart of these books suggested something more than a random connection.
The two volumes are now sitting beside each other on my shelf, and they call out for conversation. What would a 19th century woman who traveled from a small town in northwestern German to Santa Fe, New Mexico to begin her life as a new bride, and a woman born in South Africa in the 20th century, who meets her husband on the tennis court of her grandfather’s grand estate in Johannesburg, and moves to London, have in common? Almost everything.
These are women’s stories of displacement and disruption, of living out a life so far from where it began, so far from family, with their own children growing up without proximity to the web of relatives who enveloped these mothers when they were children. True, they live without worry of day-to-day pressures of food and shelter as many immigrants face, but their lives are profoundly affected by exile and they are shattered by depression.
To talk too much about ghosts will give away too much of these fine books, but the spirits of these women inhabit the memories of those who come after.