A Picturebook on the Wall: Memoir
by Elaine Margolis


Langdon Street Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-934-93810-2.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 08/08/2009

Nonfiction: Memoir

A hallway portrait gallery of long-gone family members prompted the memories that form the core of Elaine Margolis's recent work: A Picturebook on the Wall: Memoir. This coming of age story that begins at the onset of the Great Depression is a loving tribute to the aunts and uncles who provided the support and affection she failed to receive from her parents. Her mother and grandmother seemed uncomfortable with any display of affection and her father was withdrawn into his own world most of the time.

As the story progresses, Elaine spends much of her girlhood cloistered in her private space between the piano and a bookcase, living in a fantasy world developed by reading voraciously and peopled by the paper dolls who were her main companions. Her mother forbade her to play with the neighbor children and enrolled her in a school far from their home, making it difficult to socialize with her classmates.

Many readers will relate to her high school experiences as she struggled to balance friendship with the two girls who welcomed her to the school on her first day, the puzzling world of boyfriends and dating, and her burning desire to become editor-in-chief of the school newspaper against the stern restrictions placed on her by her parents.

The account of her college years at Northwestern is interwoven with references to the effects of World War II on the campus. The war was in full swing when she enrolled, and the campus was full of returning GIs during her second two years. Her ability to speed read was a real asset as she luxuriated in the freedom from her mother's constant control.

The post-graduation move she made to New York City with her roommate in pursuit of a career in journalism, in the face of opposition she knew she would face if her parents knew of this plan, seems doubly daring for having occurred in an era when few women pursued serious careers. Although the adventure got off to a less than glorious beginning, she rose to the occasion, overcoming a number of challenges to become strong and confident.

It takes courage to lay out the details of one's life in print, to lay bare family secrets when doing so may cast a less than flattering light on certain family members. However, in the overall scheme of the memoir world, the secrets she discloses are far from extreme. Emotionally constricted, controlling mothers may not be the norm, but neither are they rare. In fact, the relative ordinariness of this family lends a certain charm to the story. It's a welcome break from the abundance of sensational trauma stories, and readers in the Chicago area are especially likely to appreciate the regional aspects of the tale.


Though Elaine Margolis has mostly concentrated on fiction, publishing a novel and several short stories, the press of time contributed to her desire to tell the tale of her early life. She divides her time between Florida and a northern suburb of Chicago where she lives with her husband, her grown children and their families nearby.

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