Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth

Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth

A review of Tell Me A Story, Tell Me The Truth by Gina Roitman

Published on October 1, 2008

Tell Me A Story, Tell Me The Truth
Gina Roitman

Second Story Press

However accustomed we may be to reading stories about the Holocaust, less frequently do we read post-Holocaust narratives that show how those events impacted everything that came afterward. In one such novel, The Fifth Son, author Elie Wiesel writes that shadows not only surround beings or objects, but they also “surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.”

This thread is picked up again in Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth, a collection of linked short stories by award-winning writer and poet Gina Roitman. Set mostly in Montreal of the 1950s and ’60s, these richly told stories follow Leah Smilovitz, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, as she expels the shadows that surround her childhood and emerges into an adulthood filled with new ideas, desires, and words.

As Leah struggles to define her identity in a post-War world suffering growing pains of its own, she is forever vulnerable to the ghosts of lost family members that sometimes “fly screeching into the room, swooping and howling with their grief.” There is also the strong voice of Mrs. Smilovitz, still burned into the memory of her daughter long after her passing, and a seemingly endless parade of missing husbands and stolen children that leaves no life untouched.

These spectres of lost love, blasted innocence, and horrors beyond imagination have shaped Leah’s personality, but they have also laid fertile ground for stories that are suffused with love, hope, and compassion.

This is basic storytelling at its best, relying on strong writing and interesting characters to drive the action forward. Roitman’s writing is evocative and poignant, capable of turning phrases that will open your emotions like a key in a lock: “But if I crossed her, my mother could hurl words like a knife-thrower at the circus, not meaning to stab me, just to pin me to the wall and put on a good show.”

Roitman’s ability to capture enormity with just the right measure of words and accuracy is also remarkable. This is true in the opening stories when the voice and experience of the child make the facts of history even more meaningful. But it is also true when Leah is an adult and reflects on her life: “My life is like that, a constant sliding backward and forward along some slippery groove, carved out long before I got here.”

The first trio of stories document Leah’s childhood and early adolescence, when her mother and the shadows of the past are strongest. The next two stories retell Leah’s late adolescence and early adulthood, as she attempts to untangle herself from her mother and strike out on her own. Then comes “Tateh and the Angel of Death,” which functions much like the chorus in a Shakespearean play, in that it lays some important groundwork for the last two stories, when Leah will finally find what she has been looking for her entire life – acceptance, reconciliation, and freedom.

The last dyad is the collection’s weak point, as the narrative is picked up after a long interval and Leah is not immediately recognizable. “Missing in Action” strays from the themes that have held the stories together thus far and features a Leah far different from the heroine we’ve come to know. In the closing story, “Pesach in Provence,” Leah – and her familial ghosts – return in a somewhat more familiar form.

In one of the strongest stories, “Mr. Greene and the Studebaker,” Leah answers her mother’s question with “Ich bin immer du. I’m always here. Where else can I be?” thus perfectly capturing the emotional core of this notable collection. The dead and the disappeared are never gone, as instrumental in the creation of hope as the living. And the world of literature is all the better for it. mRb

Adriana Palanca is a Montreal writer and translator.



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