Lilacs in the Snow: A Novel is a fictionalized memoir by A.K. Henderson.
Through the streets of Montreal in winter, a story of an impoverished Jewish
family and the violence experienced by a young girl from her father. This coming
of age novel is set in the years just after the Second World War, 1945 to 1958
juxtaposed with the “present”. Lilacs in the Snow is A.K. Henderson’s
first novel, she is a Poet, writer, woman medical practitioner, and educator.
This is a remarkable novel of truthtelling, survival of poverty and domestic violence and the healing of time. The entire story revolves around the young girl Caasi’s violent relationship with her father, she does not think he loves her, how the father has a soul destroying past, in the army at the battle of Dieppe (World War II) he developed pneumonia and could not serve while most of his compatriots were murdered on the battle field. He tells her “men were killed, never to come home again. I could not quite grasp why he was frustrated and unhappy to be safe at home. I’m enraged, don’t you understand, because I never went! Cela ne fait rien, je t’assure. I should have been there.” He is sick in his soul and does not forgive himself, taking out his anger and angst on first his wife and then on Caasi. The father is in impoverished circumstances for work, he has a lot of bills and “snarled at my mother. The snarls turned to rage, cold rage, hot rage, wicked rage. The violence erupted in violcanic fury. A stream of molten rock gushed from the crater of my father’s irrational anger. We were swallowed up.” Caasi explains “For my father, the fiends were always lurking like a pack of mad and hungry dogs, fate playing its trickery and denying him his triumphs.” As well as the violence, there are good times, “he was unusually cautious retrieving lost mittens, tugging on boots, tethering and bundling arms and legs” on a winter sledding trip. There are other good memories including the family dinner of Passover Holiday with family at her grandmothers, a trip to the country with her mother, a trip to Old Orchard Beach in Maine with her father, an anonymous man gives her rides to and from school until he becomes too insistent and she slips away.
The father develops an at-home business fixing watches and making jewelry, her mother convinces him to open a storefront that fails, “poverty returned, linked to the family like the tarnished silver-plated chains.” The relationship of her parents is stressed, “when my father was present, their unspoken words alarmed and perturbed me. Not suspecting the real cause of my own wretchedness, I knew it only as an empty and hollow place, one that could not be filled.” Eventually her mother becomes withdrawn and throws herself into the river, committing suicide. The father transfers his rage from his now deceased wife to his daughter. A man spit gum into her hair, her father beat her, called her a whore and shaved the hair across the top of her head. Her father is punitive and controlling, he grabs her by her hair after talking to a friend made her late for lunch and drags her down the street and does not allow her to date when she gets older except for on the rare occasion who he chooses. He refuses to let her accept a scholarship to an American University.
Caasi is an observant child “I dragged out the time at the enamel tabletop playing with the breadcrumbs lining them up in battle formation to fend off the ever-encircling wolves with sharp teeth and nails.” She is held back in kindergarten, the Catholic children taunt her because she is Jewish, she is viciously pushed down on the ice when skating, she feigns an appendix attack that gets her operated on. At the dentist, the doctor pulls her aching tooth rather than fill it.
Her coming of age is marred by sorrow “pitiable and left forgotten in a desolate village, my transformed body flowered as my heart withered in the abandonment of my mother’s affection.” Her father’s fortunes change, he makes some shrewd investments and takes up gambling. She secretly dates some boys, goes to university and is quite gifted, has revenge on the Schulman family, “I was my father’s daughter afterall” finds some summer employment and heads west to escape from this abusive relationship.
The story is well written in the first person voice of Caasi the child and rich in detail and psychological observations, the entangled relationships of a family – the things that children can’t guess at, do not understand (articulated through time) and the nature of poverty. The writing borders on poetic prose, “Overhead, dark birds streaked across the dark sky unassailed by the squall” and is a contemporary fiction novel by a woman writer, reminiscent of a fledgling Alice Munro. The titles of the chapters are an eclectic mix of quotes from famous and less famous authors, Lord Alfred Tennyson, O.W. Holmes, Robert Graves, Thackeray (Vanity Fair), G.B. Shaw, Brother Antoninus, T.S. Eliot, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Winston Churchill, Longfellow, Le Roi Jones, The Torah amongst others, an impressive array of reading.
This writer was humbled by the very powerful truth-telling, a coming of age story that wrestles with violence and survival in the face of demons, Lilacs in the Snow: A Novel.
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Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Women's Literature