The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century

by David Laskin

(Viking Adult, $32, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

David Laskin, an accomplished journalist and author who lives in Seattle, has an impressive educational background (Harvard, Oxford) and a wide range of interests (history, weather, travel, gardens, nature). He has written about storms, the intense relationships of New York intellectuals and literary friendships, among many topics, and he frequently writes for The New York Times Travel Section, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times and Seattle Metropolitan. In his latest book, he takes on a subject near and dear to him: the history of his own family.

What is this book about?

Laskin does a powerful micro/macro thing in this book.  It is about three generations of his Russian-Jewish family and how their paths diverged: to America and great business success, as one great-aunt founded the Maidenform Bra; to Jerusalem to pursue deep, but not always satisfying Torah study and Zionist ideals and, sadly, to Europe and the horrors of the Holocaust. But it is also about the wider Jewish diaspora, the immigrant experience, the politics of the 20th century and war, subjects of interest not just to Jewish readers but to all who lived through those turbulent times.

Why you’ll like it:

Laskin has two crucial talents nicely displayed in this book: he is a thorough reporter and also a gifted storyteller. If you like family sagas (such as the books of Leon Uris) and stories that portray the sweep of history through the eyes and lives of individuals, this one’s for you.

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review by Sara Nelson for October 2013 says:  “Every writer, established or aspiring, has at one time or another looked around and decided, “My life would make a great book.” Some of them are sadly mistaken. But journalist David Laskin’s life–or rather that of his forbears, three generations of a Russian Jewish family originally named HaKoen–has made a fantastic book. Despite its name, The Family is not about the Mafia, or the Mansons, but really about one particular, ordinary/extraordinary twentieth century shtetl clan. But you don’t have to be Jewish to be fascinated by the six children of a Torah scribe on the western fringe of the Russian empire; they, like people everywhere, were buffeted by political and social and economic upheavals of their times. One branch of the family ended up in America as the prosperous founders of Maidenform lingerie; another repatriated to Israel; the third suffered the Holocaust. While I tended to favor the stories about the American branch (how can you not love a 4’ 11” Russian revolutionary, who, with her husband Wolf, invented the brassiere in 1924 and got filthy rich in ladies underwear in the depression?), the other HaKoens-turned-Cohens provided plenty of educational entertainment as well. You think you know about the Russian revolution? Try seeing it through Laskin’s ancestors’ eyes. Likewise, WWII and Zionism. This is a great, big-hearted book about how time and place modifies family, whatever or wherever its roots.”

Says Booklist: “This interesting and often moving family saga spans a century and a half, and three continents and touches most of the critical historical trends and events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Laskin’s great-great-grandfather was a Torah scribe who raised six children in a nineteenth-century shtetl on the fringe of the Russian Empire. Eventually, those siblings and their descendants split along three different paths and destinies, and the recounting of their individual experiences also tells us much about Jewish history. One stream led to the U.S., where family members found great material prosperity. A second stream included those captivated by the ideal of Jewish redemption, and they pursued the Zionist ideal in Palestine, taking an active role in the creation of Israel. The remaining group stayed in Europe and was devastated by the Holocaust. Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard, 2004) is a gifted writer who effectively blends family and world history in a deeply felt story filled with the joy and sadness that has characterized Jewish life in this period.”

“David Laskin’s The Family is a vivid, utterly compelling exploration of the forces that have shaped modern history.  We often view these forces— capitalism, fascism, mass migration, assimilation, and the like—only from a distance, as vast, impersonal abstractions.   But in Laskin’s magnificent book we see them in the intimate details of actual lives, deftly followed through a tangle of triumph, accommodation, and often unbearable suffering.  An extraordinary achievement,” says Stephen Greenblatt, New York Times bestselling author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Publishers Weekly says:  “Frequent newspaper contributor Laskin’s relatives provide ample material for a gripping epic narrative, beginning in 1875 and spanning over a century. This readable and absorbing book looks at the experiences of Jews—in this case all members of Laskin’s family—finding a fresh start in the United States, of those working to form a new country in Palestine, and of those trapped in Nazi-controlled Europe. His American ancestors’ experiences were highlighted by his great-aunt, Itel, who founded the Maidenform Bra Company in 1922. And that quintessential American success story of a hard-working immigrant who makes good contrasts well with the account of her cousin Chaim’s life in Palestine around the same time—he found disillusionment there, rather than a land of milk and honey. The sections dealing with the grim toll that the Holocaust took on the family don’t provide new insights into the Nazis’ inhumanity; the horrors of the time gain more impact when conveyed through the stories of individual lives. Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard) makes the most of the rich array of stories his research unearthed.”

“Through family letters and travel to ancestral homes, Laskin fleshes out the stories he was told (and not told) over the years. For example, his family never mentioned relatives killed in the Holocaust. Laskin’s goal, as a storyteller, is to give his family’s stories back to them. His compelling narrative brings these individuals to life as we witness their triumphs and tragedies in vivid detail and at times in their own voices. VERDICT Recommended for readers of 20th-century history, the Jewish experience, and family sagas,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A Jewish writer explores his heritage in a speculative family history that mirrors the triumphs and tragedies of the 20th century . . . the author knows how to zero in on a good story. Starting with a rumor that Joseph Stalin’s enforcer Lazar Kaganovich might be a distant relation, Laskin dives deeply into the lives and times of his relatives, dating back to the late 19th century in Volozhin, Russia. It’s after the family’s move to Belarus that the narrative gets really interesting. One branch, largely led by Maidenform Bra founder Ida Rosenthal, landed in New York and Americanized everything about themselves, abandoning names, homes and traditions. “Others step off the boat, fill their lungs with the raw unfamiliar air, and get to work. They never look back because they never have a moment to spare or an urge to regret,” writes the author. Another couple, Chaim and Sonia, became hard-core Zionist pioneers in the wilds of Palestine. Another entire branch was lost to the Holocaust, a richly imagined tragedy but one that Laskin has largely plucked from history books. Were this fiction, it would read much like the novels of Leon Uris and other spinners of historical sagas, as Laskin ties his relatives to events ranging from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Black Friday to the establishment of Israel. The telling of the tales and the recollection of history eventually breaks the author’s assumptions that his family was all about business. “Now I see how wrong I was,” Laskin writes. “History made and broke my family in the 20th century.” An ambitious, experimental look at exodus, acclimatization and culture with a cast as diverse as any family photo album.”

When is it available?

You can meet “The Family” now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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