Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Nonfiction Files - Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

I'm going to hijack my own blog today and talk about a DIFFERENT book that what's on my schedule. I started Where Am I Wearing last week, and fully intended to delve further in, and share my thoughts on what I'd read. However, as often happens, another book grabbed my attention, and kept me entranced for most of the weekend. So here are my thoughts on that one instead. =)

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

published 5/09
401 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Beth Luxenberg was an only child. Everyone knew it: her grown children, her friends, even people she'd only recently met. So when her secret emerged, her son Steve Luxenberg was bewildered. He was certain that his mother had no siblings, just as he knew that her name was Beth, and that she had raised her children, above all, to tell the truth.

By then, Beth was nearly eighty, and in fragile health. While seeing a new doctor, she had casually mentioned a disabled sister, sent away at age two. For what reason? Was she physically disabled? Mentally ill? The questions were dizzying, the answers out of reach. Beth had said she knew nothing of her sister's fate.

Six months after Beth's death in 1999, the secret surfaced once more. This time, it had a name: Annie.

Steve Luxenberg began digging. As he dug, he uncovered more and more. His mother's name wasn't Beth. His aunt hadn't been two when she'd been hospitalized. She'd been twenty-one; his mother had been twenty-three. The sisters had grown up together. Annie had spent the rest of her life in a mental institution, while Beth had set out to hide her sister's existence. Why?

Employing his skills as a journalist while struggling to maintain his empathy as a son, Luxenberg pieces together the story of his mother's motivations, his aunt's unknown life, and the times in which they lived. His search takes him to imperial Russia and Depression-era Detroit, through the Holocaust in Ukraine and the Philippine war zone, and back to the hospitals where Annie and many others were lost to memory.

Combining the power of reportage with the intrigue of mystery, Annie's Ghosts explores the nature of self-deception and self-preservation. The result is equal parts memoir, social history, and riveting detective story.

My thoughts:

Boy, what a story. This completely captured my imagination, and those who knew me as a little girl won't be surprised - I was a snooper. I loved to snoop around in old things, and see what secrets they held. My Grandma used to say I knew where things were in her house better than she did. I dreamed of finding old letters, or photographs, or newspapers - anything that might tell me the story of someone's life long ago. (Honestly, I don't know that I should have written that sentence in the past tense. It's mostly still true.)

So the idea of Steve Luxenberg snooping around in his mom's past was fascinating to me - I wish I could have been there with him, poring over old letters and pictures. It is so appealing to me. I almost can't describe how excited I felt for him, every time he found a new piece of the puzzle.

Of course, the puzzle itself is also an amazing, tragic story. Luxenberg delves into his family's history, and what he finds could probably make great movie script. Poverty, drama, family feuds, intermarriage - it's all there, and Luxenberg tells of his family's flaws and foibles with a lot of honesty. He doesn't try to justify behaviour, but using historical and cultural facts, allows the reader to understand what could have brought about the decisions that were made.

I think I felt a connection to the story, as well, because my father-in-law struggles with mental illness. Reading about the treatment the mentally ill were subjected to during this time was difficult for me, because I could imagine him in that position, if he had been born just a few years earlier. I was unaware of how popular the eugenics movement was in the early 1900s, and now have a serious interest in this period of our nation's history.

Unfortunately, much of the information about Annie has been lost to history, so Luxenberg is often left guessing, or relying on incomplete or inconsistent memories to fill in the gaps. This is the only place where the book sometimes lags - in trying to recreate Annie's life, he departs on tangents, away from the main narrative, that don't always quite pan out.

Annie's story is a window to a period of history I was unfamiliar with. This book was completely fascinating to me - I didn't want to stop reading. I would definitely recommend it!

Finished: 5/25/09

Source: FSB Associates

Rating: 8/10

Don't just take my word for it! Here's what some other fabulous bloggers had to say:

Shelf Love

Experiments in Reading


Literary Feline said...

This sounds like a terrific book. I admit that I was a bit of a snooper too. I still have a rather curious mind. :-) Thanks for the great review.

Anonymous said...

wow...this really sounds like a great story and something I would enjoy.

mar10123 said...

Amazing story - I really love good biographies/memoirs. Can I borrow this one? And, I promise - you have no secret siblings hidden away somewhere. One snooper, one gullible, and one climber were more than enough.

Zibilee said...

This sounds like a fabulous read! Reading about mental illness is very interesting to me, and this seems like a different take on this type of story. I have put this book on my wish list. Thanks!

Elizabeth said...

Literary Feline - Me too! I can't help snooping sometimes, even though I should be too grown up for it. =)

Violet - I bet you would like it.

Mom - three was enough? I can't believe with such perfect children you would ever say that. =)

Zibilee - it was fascinating. I hope you enjoy it.