Monday, August 12, 2013
When I was in about 7th grade, I went to a book sale in a local mall. It was one of those purges that libraries do every so often, and you could buy books for around 10 cents a piece or something ridiculous like that. Yeah, pretty sure I bought 20 books that day. The funny thing is, there's only one I can remember buying, and it is one that has become precious to me throughout my life since the age of 13.
Ellie's Inheritance is an out-of-print book by Hila Colman. It follows the young adulthood of Ellie Levine, a Jewish girl in New York that was raised in wealth and privilege but whose father lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. Now she and her father live in a ratty "hotel" room on the opposite side of Manhattan, and Ellie finds herself having to find jobs and support her father, who is of another world and generation. Living in the shadow of the memory of her larger-than-life ambitious mother Rachel, Ellie must find her own way in the world, recognizing the unseen - but certainly felt - influence on her life while also breaking free of the expectations she feels weighing on her shoulders. As a young Jewish woman in the 1930s, she must also face the rapidly changing world as she encounters Communism, Fascism, the upper class, the working class, immigrants and refugees in the melting pot of New York. She also encounters love along the way, but it's a love that forces her to make choices she never thought she would have to make.
This is the kind of story that could have been written in an incredible sappy, lovesick kind of way. It could have been written to read like a lame period piece movie script. It's not. Colman writes as though she is pouring out her own heart and story - or perhaps the stories of those who have gone before her - and instead of being predictable, the story invites you into Ellie's world. You see New York from her eyes, you feel the pain of the changes in her life, you begin to cheer a little inside when she starts to raise her head from the sand and really see the world around her. At the same time, Colman paints a brilliant picture of life in New York prior to World War II. It was a time when everything was changing. The Great War had changed the face of the earth - both literally and politically. Immigration to the U.S. surged as families sought new and better lives for themselves. Political convictions ran from waaaay left to waaaaay right - and Ellie is placed right in the middle of this struggle. On top of that, she is haunted by the memory of a mother she can barely remember but whose legacy lives on in the family. Rachel Levine came to this country with her mother and sisters and nothing else, and the strength of their family combined with her fierce determination to succeed raised them from the ashes to places of privilege beyond their dreams. And then, as was the case with so many, it all came apart in 1929, and Ellie was left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life without the strength of her father or the physical presence of her mother - but she had the strength of her mother's family and her inherited strength of will of her mother to not just survive, but thrive. Ellie just has to learn how to live that out in her own way, apart from the memory of her mother, and find her place in the world.
I love Ellie's story. She is one of those book characters that I carry with me all the time. She pops into my head at the most random times - I will notice a loose thread on the hem of my shirt, and suddenly I am back in Ellie's room as she designs and sews her own party dress. I will look at my husband in love and think of the great loves of Ellie's life and how they shaped her. Although Ellie was older than I was when I first read that book, it was still the story of a young woman searching for who she was - and that spoke deeply to me as a 13 year old girl. It still does. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Ellie had Colman continued the story. Ellie's Inheritance is, in fact, a sequel itself. I read it first when I was 13 and had been looking for the first book, Rachel's Legacy, ever since...but it wasn't until about two years ago that I found a copy on paperbackswap.com. Finding that book was like finding buried treasure. It filled in all the holes I had wondered about for years. I was so excited, I think I read it in 24 hours flat.
I wish Ellie's Inheritance wasn't out of print. I wish it wasn't so hard to find. But perhaps it's elusiveness as a novel is a part of its identity. Maybe that's part of what makes the book as marvelous as it is. Whatever the case, Ellie's Inheritance has had a place of honor on my bookshelf and in my heart for the past 19 years, and if you can find a copy of it, I recommend you allow it a place in your heart as well.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George
Top Five TBR:
1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Sister Emily's Lightship by Jane Yolen
3. Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger
4. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan