by Andrea Cheng
Good storytelling runs in families. Whenever relatives gather to share memories, there are usually children around to absorb the details. I eagerly listened to tales such as my grandmother's favorite of watching panicked neighbors flee their homes after the 1938 airing of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds", imagining the events and enjoying the feeling that I was somehow a part of history.
Andrea Cheng's novel Marika is loosely based on events told by her Hungarian-born parents and grandparents who survived the Holocaust. She writes, "After dinner when my brother and sister went out to play, I often stayed underneath the dinner table so the adults would forget I was there and listened to stories." Because Ms. Cheng has such close knowledge of this period, Marika succeeds on many levels. Vivid characters, historical accuracy and a suspenseful tale make it a satisfying read. Young women who felt a kinship reading Anne Frank's diary will find a new heroine to admire.
Maria Schnurmacher, the title character, narrates the story in an elegant voice befitting her cultured upbringing. As she grows, she overhears talk between "Apa" (her father) and Uncle Lipot concerning Hitler's rise to power and new laws revoking the rights of European Jews. Although practicing Catholics, the Schnurmachers have Jewish ancestry-a fact they can't erase as they assimilate into upper-class Budapest society. The book opens with twelve-year-old Maria forging identity papers for the family. Ms. Cheng perfectly shows the tension felt by the adults in Maria's life and her perception of a looming threat:
"There was one form left. Apa said we would keep it blank for now. You never know when a blank one might come in handy. Apa laid all the documents in a row on the floor to dry. Uncle Lipot sat back in the armchair, and I saw that his face was drenched in sweat. When I looked at Apa, there were tears in his eyes. He tried to say something about how wrong it was to forge, but Uncle Lipot cut him off.
The following chapters cover ten years of Maria's life, starting when she was six and bewildered by her parent's sudden separation. She returns from a summer vacation to find her home partitioned by a plastered wall: "[O]ur apartment had been made into two, a big one for my mother, my brother Andras and me, and a smaller one for my father alone."
'She knows,' he said.
Division is indeed a major theme of this book. Young Maria is left sobbing under the piano after her nanny throws her beloved rag doll Maxi in the trash. Later, she witnesses the isolation of her best friend Zsofi, who, as a Jew, must sit alone during religious education at school. Her family is turned away from their summer house by local anti-Semites, and they finally are separated during the Nazi occupation of Budapest. The Nazis segregated the city's Jews before deporting them to concentration camps.
The Schnurmachers survive through bribes and family friends like Ilonka, with whom Maria hides, posing as her niece. (The blank identity paper did come in handy.) An epilogue reveals the fates of the main characters and lends an air of authenticity to this moving novel.
Ms. Cheng says she wrote Marika partly to explain her background and because she was interested "in the way historical events collide with personal lives. Most people, especially children, are only concerned with the problems in their small worlds-until events come crashing down on them." She and her mother remain close, living less than a block apart. "While writing Marika, I talked to my mother all the time. Most of my questions were detail oriented. For example, 'How long did it take you to walk to school?' or 'What did you do all day at Ilonka's?' Although I lived with my grandmother for fourteen years, I still had lots of questions about my mother's memories of her parents."
According to the author, her book went through "a lot of revisions. I have a box with fifteen different versions, but it went through more than that." She describes a wonderful relationship with her editor Joy Neaves, "an incredible reader and very articulate in her comments. Her notes are more like a dialogue than a prescription." Such dedication to craft is evident in this polished work, and I highly recommend Marika to any memoirist interested in turning family stories into fiction.
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