Our Parents’ Choices

April 26, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Every day, children benefit or suffer from their parents’ choices. Such is life, and such is the stuff of literature, especially when a parent’s options are radically shaped by societal upheaval.

Two recent, thought-provoking novels trace the far-reaching consequences of parents’ choices during tumultuous times:  More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, the eminent Israeli novelist, and The Promise by Dalmon Galgut of South Africa, the 2021 winner of the prestigious Booker Prize.

Cold War Era Power Struggles

More Than I Love My Life is based on the life of Eva Panić Nahir, a Yugoslavian Jew arrested in in 1951 by the security forces of Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito. Eva’s husband had just died by suicide in state custody. He was accused of conspiring against Tito in support of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Tito’s agents urged Eva to denounce her dead husband as a traitor, promising that if she did, she could return home to her young daughter. Eva adamantly refused to blacken her husband’s reputation. As punishment, she spent several horrific years at a brutal island prison camp. Meanwhile, her daughter languished in the care of abusive relatives, angry at her mother for abandoning her.

Out of this raw material, David Grossman, Eva’s longtime friend, fashioned More Than I Love My Life. He invented an Eva-like character whose choices profoundly affect generations of her family.

Book club participants will recognize Eva’s moral quandary as akin to one faced by Ethel Rosenberg in the United States, also during the early Cold War era. In a sensational trial, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. As visiting author Anne Sebba (Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy) explored with the book group in December, American prosecutors hoped Ethel would denounce Julius as a Soviet spy. By denouncing Julius, Ethel could have saved her life and possibly remained free to raise the couple’s young sons. But Ethel stayed loyal to Julius, the couple were executed in 1953, and their children became orphans.

Turmoil in South Africa

The Promise opens in South Africa in 1986. A 40-year-old Jewish woman, Rachel, has just died; Rachel married into the Afrikaner Swart family, descendants of Dutch settlers. The Swarts own a farm near Pretoria.

Jewish funeral preparations get underway, discomfiting the Dutch Reformed (Protestant) Swarts. Rachel’s youngest child, 13-year-old Amor, recalls overhearing a significant conversation between her parents. Shortly before dying, Rachel insisted that her husband, Manie, promise to give a small house on the Swart farm to Salome, their Black maid who has long lived there. Salome had worked for the Swarts since Manie’s father’s time, and tenderly cared for Rachel throughout her illness. Grateful, Rachel urgently wanted Salome “to have something” for “everything she’s done.”

Amor reminds Manie about Salome’s house, but he denies making any such promise. Amor’s older brother, Anton, awkwardly tries to comfort her by pointing out that even if Manie wanted to give Salome the house, he could not legally transfer property in a White area to a Black woman.

Time passes, apartheid ends, South African law is reformed, and the family gathers at more funerals. Through it all, Manie’s promise to Rachel remains unfulfilled even as Salome continues to work for the Swarts, residing in the house she does not own.

As in More Than I Love My Life, characters in The Promise make consequential decisions that ripple down the years, causing family rifts. The Promise also alludes, its author says, to the unrealized promise of post-apartheid South Africa. Like Grossman’s novel, it illuminates important history.