Anyone who's ever cleaned out an attic has probably had a similar moment: you find an old box full of yellowed letters or faded photos, and you immediately start imagining the stories behind all those glimpses and excerpts and moments. You look at those smiling faces of people long gone and you think that if only you knew enough and had enough time, what a dramatic tale you could fashion out of these dusty old scrapbooks.
It's a tempting moment, and how much more so when the person discovering such a trove is a talented writer? Such is the scenario behind novelist and historian Ian Buruma's latest book, Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War. Buruma found stacks of steel boxes filled with moldering old letters, hundreds of them, dating from 1915 when his grandfather was still in boarding school to the 1970s, when his grandparents were sweet old senior citizens. And he decided to do what so many people making similar discoveries only dream about: to delve into those letters and try to tell their story in a way that would capture the imagination of an audience that's not related to him by blood.
“The lives of most people, unless they were very famous, slip away into oblivion when those who still remember them die in their turn,” he laments. “These days few people even leave a record of their existence; whatever is there in digital form will disappear soon. E-mails are not written to last.” Against these somewhat crotchety cautions, he sets out an ambitious project to salvage his grandparents from the scrapbooks.
It's a monumentally difficult task, which is why some of the best writers have tried it and failed. Buruma ultimately fails too, but with an author this sharp and sensitive, there's inevitably worth in the attempt.
He tells the story of the Schelsingers, Bernard and Winifred, grandparents the boy Ian first recalls at their spacious Berkshire vicarage of St. Mary Woodlands House, which is understandably idealized in Buruma's memories. “[D]omestic scenes were always bathed in sunshine, of course, followed by long shadows and golden light of early summer evenings.” It and later boyhood getaways prompt the sigh that is the theme of the book: “Ah, those old times.”
Buruma uses the cache of letters as the spine of his narrative, following Bernard off to both world wars and tracing the growth of their love for each other. The descendants of German Jewish emigre families, Bernard and “Win” both pride themselves from the beginning on their assimilated British status. “They were British and had the perfect right to insist on it,” Buruma insists, adding portentously, “and yet their sense of belonging was never simply to be taken for granted.”
That portentous note is sounded throughout the book, and it generally sours the proceedings. It's like listening to a manager just off-stage whispering directions out into the spotlight – it both distracts and slightly irritates. Central to the story of "Their Promised Land," indeed embodied in its very title, is the experience of the Schlesingers as thoroughly assimilated Jews, and the knowledge on the reader's part, looming over every one of these pages, is that no degree of assimilation would have saved them if they'd been in Berlin instead of Berkshire when the Nazis arrived. It's a powerful load of knowledge, and it affected the Schlesingers in different ways at different times, occasionally prompting crass comments about their forebears, but also prompting them to organize rescue and aid for a dozen Jewish children from Nazi Germany.
Such bare, contradictory, very human drama hardly needs stage-managing, and yet there's Buruma on every second page, helping his readers to see what's right in front of their faces and clarifying questions too simple for them to have thought to ask. When he reflects on how grateful his grandparents were to be living in England, for instance, he can't leave the reader alone to make sense of it. “It's easy to curl one's lip from the relative safety of a different age at their gratitude,” he writes. “But I refuse to see their lives in that light. Who is to say what anyone's true identity is anyway?” To which we might answer: certainly not a grandson who suddenly seems 16 different kinds of conflicted. Readers have never seen Buruma this confessional before – but they've also never seen him banal before either, and that might not be an even swap.
“We all make up stories about those we love, or hate, just as we do ourselves,” our author ruminates at one point, and it's undeniably true. But "Their Promised Land" seems awkwardly caught between fiction and memoir, with neither the imaginative sweep of the former nor the heft of the latter. Instead, what we have is certainly more elaborate than those boxes of old letters but ultimately not much more moving.