At a college famous for its academic excellence and top-notch professors, two-time Chancellor’s Award winner Geneseo professor of English Rachel Hall has managed to make huge waves with the recent publication of her collection of linked short stories Heirlooms. Although Hall’s work has been previously featured in a number of literary journals and anthologies over the years—including Fifth Wednesday, Bellingham Review, The Gettysburg Review, New Letters and Crab Orchard Review—Heirlooms marks her first solo publication, which has already won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Book Prize.
Inspired by her own compelling family history, her debut book introduces readers to a fictional French-Jewish family during World War II. Through the ups and downs of 15 stories and four generations, the family journeys from the French city of Saint-Malo to the American Midwest, losing the tangible heirlooms that some families hold so dear, but gaining instead an intense family history and lasting memory.
Hall credits the deep relationship she had with her mother, who shared the family’s past with her. Hall’s mother was a young Jewish child during World War II whose parents died during the war, leaving her to be adopted by her paternal aunt and uncle. As a result, she and her family frequently moved around in order to escape detection by the Nazi regime. Life didn’t get much easier, however, when they moved to the United States, as Hall’s mother was bullied for her lack of knowledge of the English language and later for her accent.
“It’s almost like those stories were mine,” Hall said. She also said how, as a young girl, she would place herself within the stories of her family history, imagining herself jumping to her mother’s rescue. Thus Hall was able to “take real life events and embroider around them, invent and imagine.”
With a rich cast of reoccurring characters—many of whom are inspired by her family members—Hall hopes to capture “a different kind of Holocaust story”: one that focuses on the extremely difficult experience of immigration. This is a lesson that Hall hopes will resonate with modern audiences, as displaced people from across the border and across the globe search for comfort and reprieve from their own pasts.
In place of the usual Holocaust narrative—which often consist of gruesome tales of concentration camps, torture and disparagement—Heirlooms provides a window into the heart of one family, whose memories and experiences may seem small in the grand scheme, but are representative of the immigrant experience.
“[The book is] about the war, but it’s also about how we pass on our stories,” Hall said. “I think it’s important to remember that when that many people die—when six million people die—there are going to be about six million different stories.”
At first, “La Possette” looks like a story of class difference, but it is in fact a heartbreaking example of the loss that results from the displacement and social politics of World War II. “White Lies”—a story that Hall admitted was particularly hard for her to write—is an example of the tragic sacrifices that the war forced families to make.
Heirlooms has already had its fair share of success, participating in Rochester’s fifth annual Fringe Festival. With the help of fellow assistant professor of English Kristen Gentry, Hall enlisted three Geneseo creative writing major seniors—Oliver Diaz, Evan Goldstein and Sarah Steil—to present their own stories based on “what gets left behind, what gets passed on.” Hall chose these three students based on their creative writing talent and ability to mold Heirlooms into their own creative content.
The Geneseo community has another opportunity to hear a sneak peek of Hall’s work in Heirlooms. She will be hosting a reading and book signing at the Geneseo Barnes & Noble Bookstore in the MacVittie College Union on Wednesday Oct. 5 from 1-5 p.m.