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Cracks in the Portrait

June 4, 2009 By:
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Johanna Reiss, born in rural Holland, was hidden during the Holocaust along with her older sister. A neighbor couple in their farming village took the girls in and watched over them for very nearly three years, right up until the war's end.

These simple facts, complex in their resonance, gave Reiss the material she needed to eventually write her two beloved young readers' classics. The first, The Upstairs Room, describes what hiding was like in all its permutations; published in 1973, it was honored by the Caldecott committee. The sequel, The Journey Back, depicts how Reiss and her sister dealt with the freedom thrust upon them when World War II ended, and they discovered that families had been blasted apart and that their country had been scarred, perhaps irrevocably.

It turns out, however, that Reiss' "journey" to authorship was not so clear-cut. The facts themselves did not appear to her right away as usable "material." She never even thought of becoming a writer, she's said, until her children, two girls, were 7 and 9. "It struck me how free they were -- compared to me, when I was their age. I wanted to write for them what my childhood was like ... [when] I hid in a tiny room ... ."

But now that Reiss has published her third book -- the first geared to adults, a memoir titled A Hidden Life -- we find that the process was even more circuitous than the above quote suggests. If it had not been for the encouragement of her husband, she and her girls might never have taken the trip back to Holland from her new home in America, during which she gathered the necessary research for her books.

But as the title of her new work suggests, the circumstances were even more complicated. Her husband may have been her greatest nurturer, but he nearly derailed her plans. Reiss and her girls went to Holland first, visiting for a few weeks before their husband and father joined them. After viewing the terrain of his wife's past, including the tiny room where she hid, he returned to the states ahead of his family, as planned; just before they were to leave Holland for home, he committed suicide. He left no note, and so left his young wife more devastated and confused than she might have been, very nearly blasted apart herself.

These "hidden" facts, something Reiss had barely discussed since that August journey in 1969, forms the heart of her memoir, which has been published by Melville House.

As befits a life left fragmented by devastating loss, Reiss' new book seeks to fill in many of the "holes" in her biography, but it accomplishes the task in an unconventional, fragmentary style, at least in terms of chronology. She jumps about from 1969 Holland, to Holland during the war, to Holland right after the war, to the United States when she first immigrated there, to the various American cities where she lived when her husband and she were newly married. We see the author as a young teacher at an elementary school in Holland, as a young, insecure wife, as an even less assured mother, as a sister, a daughter and a devastated widow.

And we see as well her husband, Jim, American-born, Ivy League-educated, handsome -- which is more than apparent from the picture the author includes of the two of them during their visit to Holland. This man -- Jewish-born, but very nearly ignorant of all things Jewish -- was a source of stability for Reiss, a woman unsure of the world after her wartime crucible; he was also her greatest champion, as is apparent from her memories of him in the early pages of the book. But as the manuscript moves on, we see that there are cracks in this portrait as well, that his childhood -- especially his parents' divorce -- may have left him as devastated as Reiss was by her experience.

A Hidden Life is as compelling and readable as a traditional mystery, for there is a sense that both writer and reader are searching for clues about what led Jim to take his life. But be forewarned: Don't pick up this book if you are looking for answers. This sad, troubling, moving work is much like life itself. It doesn't provide solutions, it merely presents the world as it so often can be: bruising, incomplete, generally wonderful, but just as often incomprehensible.

 

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