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Book Review : Hollow History of a Survivor's Daughter

January 26, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

White Lies by Julie Salamon (Hill & Co.: $16.95; 259 pages)

The heroine of this second-generation Holocaust novel is named for two places: Jamaica for the Long Island community where she was conceived and Just for the town in Eastern Europe that was her parents' home before their internment in a concentration camp. Far more than mere setting here, geography is fate itself.

Within a few years after their arrival in America, the Justs settled, entirely by chance, in the tiny Midwestern town of Harmony and immediately began to eradicate their tragic past. Father, mother and their two small daughters were driving cross country when they stopped for directions at a gas station in a village hardly more than a wide place in the road. Dr. Just, who'd never quite managed to establish a practice in New York, had read that physicians were badly needed in the heartland. On his way to one such Ohio town, he was persuaded to stay in Harmony by a delegation of local leaders.

Idyllic Life in Ohio

Dashing, handsome and a fine doctor, he soon achieved the American dream, prospering and providing his children and his vivacious wife with an idyllic life. Relentlessly cheerful and utterly matter-of-fact, Jamaica's mother tried to avoid any mention of the war years, dismissing her experiences in the fewest possible words whenever the subject arose.

Later, after she was married and living in New York, her Harmony girlhood would take on a mythical importance for Jamaica, molding her dreams and fantasies. She has more than the usual share of both. She works as a journalist, cranking out human-interest stories for a paper that seems entirely dedicated to features, and her overheated imagination is kept constantly at the boiling point, fired by the urban dramas that surround her. Her sweet, affectionate husband, Sammy, an uncomplicated teddy bear of a man, tries to be understanding, but nothing in his experience has prepared him for Jamaica's intensity.

Romantic Compensations

Denied the chance to identify with her parents' life, Jamaica compensates by involving herself with the subjects of her articles. So desperate is her need for connection that she has taken to riding the subways alone at night, deliberately courting danger in her misguided attempt to give her bland and placid life the drama and meaning she's missed. Insulated from reality by her parents' attitude, by the corn-fed wholesomeness of Harmony and now by Sammy's unqualified tolerance of her foibles, Jamaica feels she's missed out on her rightful share of the world's misery. Where there should be tragedy, there's only routine.

After persuading her editor to let her tackle weightier subjects than usual, Jamaica investigates third-generation welfare families, interviews an appealingly shady commodities trader and seeks out the various passionate eccentrics who constantly write letters to the editor. These assignments not only put Jamaica in the jeopardy she longs for but provide her with the adventures that propel the contrived plot.

When the paper runs a symposium on a proposed Holocaust memorial, Jamaica is invited to contribute an essay, a device that allows us to hear the official version of her parents' story and at the same time share the heroine's guilt and anguish at not having been allowed to share it. "But nothing had happened to her, really. What were her memories of the Holocaust? . . . Her parents, especially Jamaica's mother--were curiously flexible in their view of the past. They preferred to look at it from a certain remove, when they could bear to look at it at all."

Need for Perils

Frantic to "make something happen to her," Jamaica willfully imperils her comfortable marriage by embarking upon a romance with the commodities trader. She becomes embroiled in a dispute with the welfare recipients who resent her realistic reporting of their plight, but her most crucial adventure comes after she establishes a personal relationship with the most opinionated of her compulsive letter writers. Mirabile dictu, this particular example of the type turns out to be an elderly concentration camp survivor from the same town in Hungary in which Jamaica's father was born. After wining, dining and endlessly interviewing this gentleman, Jamaica finally discovers the reason for her father's occasional and unexplained outbursts of temper, the puzzling incidents that marred her otherwise storybook life in Harmony.

Though "White Lies" is clearly meant to confront the complex psychological problems inherited by many children of Holocaust survivors, Jamaica's sufferings seem little more than an exaggerated case of generalized yuppie disaffection; the intended cry from the heart only a restatement of that often-asked question "Is this all there is?" Jamaica Just's real tragedy is that she is merely typical of her generation--hardly enough to sustain her plaintive chronicle.

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