November 30, 2006

Piecing Together A Dark Past

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Absorbing, tension-producing and simply written, Waiting for Eugene is a sympathetic look at the scars the Holocaust left behind.

12-year-old Sara's father, Michel, is haunted -- by myriad ghosts. Sometimes he is not really present in the life he leads as a talented architect and wonderfully encouraging husband and father. At other times, his love for his precociously artistic daughter, Sara, is overwhelmed by his fearful memories of the sister he lost by the same name, and he tries to shove her into the closet and under the bed, telling her to hide. He weeps easily, and talks about Eugené, Ivan, Rudi and Lilli, people who may or may not have ever existed.

When Sara's father is in his right mind, he is warm and caring and deeply proud of his daughter and his wife. Sara and her mother are bonded in their fear of his falling apart and regressing to the two years he lived in the blackness beneath a barn floor, hiding from the Nazis in the occupied French countryside. His 'episodes' of going back to that world are happening more and more often. Sara's buddy, Willie Jensen, knows about her Dad's problems, and though she's tried to keep the truth from him, it's becoming obvious to everyone that Sara's father is not okay.

At times, Sara's mother seems unsympathetic to her daughter, telling her sharply that she mustn't talk to her father about certain things, and must not encourage him to tell stories. Her fear keeps her stern and hard. Sara is such an innocent -- she is oddly clueless about her father's differences, though by the age of twelve it is apparent even to her innocence that sometimes her father is clean-shaven and on top of things, and other times, he is rumpled and distant. As old as she is she reacts to him as a trusting child, happily eating up his "stories;" her mind glossing over the odd comments he makes about the "They" who came and "turned out the lights" and "Skewered tous les enfants." Sara somehow makes light of the times that her father doesn't recognize her as his child. Her shock as her mother explains to her that her father's family is dead, that the stories he tells are either made up, or a horrifying mix of reality and make-believe, is painful, and somewhat difficult to understand.

Sara's affection for this amazing man, however, is easy to comprehend. When he is himself, he is exceptional, creative, amazing, and nothing like the other fathers on the block. Sara struggles mightily to do something to help him stay that way.

Though the dialogue in this novel is sometimes choppy and stilted, and additional characters like the class bully, other students, the neighbor's family, and Sara's mother are written two-dimensionally, the central characters of Sara and her father come through in full color. A memorable book dealing compassionately with mental illness, the Holocaust, and the tricks of memory, a real bonus is found in the back of the novel, with illustrations in haunting black and gray by the author herself.

No comments: