Bookmonger: Seattle author views the 20th century through family stories

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 21, 2013 

Seattle author David Laskin's previous books have been about writers ("Partisans"), weather ("Braving the Elements," "Children of the Blizzard") and war ("The Long Way Home"). Now the man with a reputation for careful research and gripping narrative has focused on a topic even closer to his heart.

"The Family" is about Laskin's own ancestors - and how the scions of one pious Jewish scribe in 19th century Russia went on in the next century to scatter across the globe.

The family tree of Shimon Dov Hokohen and his wife Beyle Shapiro extends across two pages at the beginning of this book, weaving a web of names and dates that can only hint at the epic story Laskin pursues.

One branch stuck to its roots and remained in Eastern Europe; another ventured to Palestine and participated in the birth of Israel; and a third struck out for America to pursue opportunity there.

The author travels to yeshivas, gravesites, archives, museums, settlements and the kitchen tables of long-lost cousins - piecing together the lives of the generations who came before through old letters and photographs, musty records, memoirs and the stories passed down through families.

There is heartbreak and horror - Laskin acquaints us with three sisters - Doba, Etl and Sonia, all born and raised in present-day Belarus. The first two married and settled down to raise families nearby, while rebellious Sonia insisted on emigrating to Palestine. Her family fretted about this impulsive young pioneer who was devoting her life to the expansion of the Jewish territory, but in the end it was Sonia who lived to old age. The others were exterminated in World War II.

But "The Family" also contains astonishing success stories. Sonia's uncle, aunt, and cousins, for example, had come to America in the early 1900s. By the Roaring Twenties, the cousins had become thoroughly Americanized and had started businesses in New York City, managing to keep them in operation even through the Great Depression.

One cousin, Itel (Ida) Rosenthal, was one of the dynamo founders of the Maidenform bra company, whose carefully engineered and stylishly produced undergarments encouraged women to leave the boyish flapper silhouette of the 1920s behind and embrace their curves.

During World War II, Itel had the acumen to secure a "declaration of essentiality" from the U.S. Army - because "uplifted" women workers were less fatigued.

She also launched Maidenform's high-profile "Dream" ad campaign in 1949. It scandalized many - but the photos of skimpily clad women, taken by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, also sold millions of dollars' worth of brassieres.

"The Family" reflects the remarkable gains and losses sustained by one family tree over the course of the 20th century. But in retracing his family's roots, Laskin also makes the point that "The pulse of history beats in every family. ... Fate and chance and character make and break every generation."

So read this marvelous book by all means, but also remember to listen to your own elders and take down the stories they have to tell.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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