|My TOWN CRIER
Heroine has spunk in WWII novel
May 17, 2010
In a Pale Blue Light by Lily Poritz Miller
Sumach Press, trade, $24.99
Having been a book editor in New York and Toronto for most of her adult
life, Lily Poritz Miller must have learned the rule about first novels very well:
write what you know. And having been raised in South Africa for the first 15
years of her life, during the 1930s and 1940s when Jewish immigration
added to and further complicated the layered racism of that country, she
must have known a lot to base that first novel on. The only mystery is why
it took so long to complete - more than six decades after the events
depicted in In a Pale Blue Light.
Perhaps Miller needed the time to work out how to present it in fiction. In
any case, her story of a young Jewish girl in post-war South Africa is a well
Libka Hoffman enters adolescence trying to find her way in a diversely
divided society, with the Boers (descendants of European settlers)
exploiting the blacks and distrusting the Jews, the Jews using the blacks,
the well-to-do Jews looking down on the less fortunate Jews - and almost
everyone seemingly down on Libka for her tolerant, questioning attitude.
Her mensch of a father has just died and her ineffectual mother lives in
dreams of the Lithuanian shetl from where they emigrated, and in fears of
what happened to the rest of her family who didn't escape Hitler. Libka's
Jewish schoolmates disdain her because she doesn't share their privileged
attitudes. Her brother avoids her because he's trying to impress the
snobbish girls. The only person she can talk to is Maputo, a black man
befriended by her late father, and the man's attempt to protect Libka's
family from attack leads to his own banishment from her life.
Yet, however bleak Libka's existence becomes, In a Pale Blue Light
seldom despairs. In a less nuanced novel, you'd say our heroine has
spunk, an indomitable spirit. And help comes from some surprising
quarters, bringing bittersweet redemption for the Hoffman family.
Miller's writing is what some people call poetic - but not in that flowery,
metaphor-heavy style of Canadian poets-turned-novelists. Rather in
stripped-down language, always choosing just the right word to convey
complex, heartfelt drama without drawing attention to the language itself.
If the novel has one failing, it's that the compelling tension falls off too
completely in the last quarter. Otherwise, In a Pale Blue Light is a
wonderfully realized story, in which we fully live Libka Hoffman and her
family's experience in a land strange to both them and us, during a
shameful era of world history. Which somehow, especially after reading
this novel, does not seem so long ago.