Inventing the past

Charlene Giannetti, reviewing this novel in Woman Around Town, says that Irma’s story allowed her to imagine her own grandmother’s immigration from Southern Italy, for her grandmother would not or could not share the specifics of her journey. I think that for many people, there was some trauma in the immigration experience, at the least the pain of leaving home. Some may have been leaving a difficult situation that pained them to recall. Others may have been simply swept up in the raw newness of America. And some invented an immigration story to fill other needs in their soul. Charlene’s generous sharing of her grandmother’s silence ironically connected with my own grandmother’s elaborate “remembering.”

I was four when my German grandmother died. I barely remember her, but my father recounted her own tale, a pure romantic tragedy. The story goes like this. A young nobleman in Heidelberg falls deeply in love with a beautiful servant girl and despite his parents’ furious objections, runs away with her to a tiny country town where they have a child, Carolina, my grandmother. The young man dies and his wealthy parents, having no other heir, gain possession of the child, forcing her mother to become her own daughter’s laundress in the grand house in Heidelberg. Bolstering this story, my grand mother recounted gorgeous ball rooms, crystal chandeliers, soldiers bedecked with gold braid. But the bereft mother can not endure this situation, hears of a family going to America and arranges a deal: they will take the child, kidnap her, essentially, and when the mother has enough funds, she’ll come to America and reclaim the child. And so, at four years old, the child comes to America. A few years later, the mother arrives but can not find the family. They have moved and left no address. They have fallen in love with the child and tell my grandmother nothing of her true past, in fact insisting that all her memories are merely dreams. The grief-stricken mother searches for her lost daughter until the end of her days, finally dying in New Jersey.

The problem is this sad, romantic story is almost certainly invented. My grandmother was indeed adopted, but the noble origins, the country idyll, the mother-turned-laundress and tragic, Evangeline-like search were embellishments, I think, of my grandmother’s longing as she lived her adulthood in a modest house on Brooklyn’s Avenue P. The distance from the Old Country, the clean break between the two worlds allowed some to conjure a new past.

I wonder if this is a unique story, if other families have immigration histories that are more accurately romantic fictions. Let me know.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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Recent Review
“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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