Who She Was
My Search for My Mother's Life
By Samuel G. Freedman
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780743227353, 352pp.)
Publication Date: March 22, 2005
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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When Samuel G. Freedman was nearing fifty, the same age at which his mother died of breast cancer, he realized that he did not know who she was. Of course, he knew that Eleanor had been his mother, a mother he kept at an emotional distance both in life and after death. He had never thought about the entire life she lived before him, a life of her own dreams and disappointments. And now, that ignorance haunted him.
So Freedman set out to discover the past, and Who She Was is the story of what he found. It is the story of a young woman's ambitions and yearnings, of the struggles of her impoverished immigrant parents, and of the ravages of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust.
It is also the story of a middle-aged son wracked with regret over the disregard he had shown as a teenage boy for a terminally ill mother, and as an adult incapable for decades of visiting her grave. It is the story of how he healed that wound by asking all the questions he had not asked when his mother was alive.
Whom did she love? Who broke her heart? What lifted her spirits? What crushed her hopes? What did she long to become? And did she get to become that woman in her brief time on earth?
Who She Was brings a compassionate yet unflinching eye to the American Jewish experience. It recaptures the working-class borough of the Bronx with its tenements and pushcarts, its union halls and storefront synagogues and rooftop-tar beaches. It remembers a time when husbands searched hundreds of miles for steady work and wives sent packages and prayers to their European relatives in the desperate hope they might survive the Nazis. In such a world, Eleanor Hatkin came of age, striving for education, for love, for a way out.
Researched as a history, written like a novel, Who She Was stands in the tradition of such classics as Call It Sleep and The Assistant. In bringing to life his mother, Samuel G. Freedman has given all readers a memorable heroine.
Samuel G. Freedman is a columnist for The New York Times and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of six acclaimed books, four of which have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Freedman also has written frequently for USA TODAY, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, The Jerusalem Post, Tablet, The Forward, and Salon.com. He lives in Manhattan with his fiance and his children.
"Samuel Freedman's Who She Was is a tribute to both its subject -- the power of motherhood and the mysteries of familial love -- and its readers: beautifully written, deeply moving, this memoir is not only a delightful read, but it is also a testament to how every life is a living and memorable embodiment of the past and history. One feels the author's affection and wonderment for his subject on every page."
-- Oscar Hijuelos, Author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
"Apparently a memoir of one family, one mother, this story encompasses the brave, sad, fantastic tale of the Jewish struggle in America. It captures the triumph in our history while daring to look at our private failures and mourn them. This book includes the way we love each other, the way we stand together, our flawed souls flapping in the historical wind while the changing times flow through each of us, impossible to avoid."
-- Anne Roiphe, Author of 1185 Park Avenue: A Memoir
"Sam Freedman manages to shed light on immigrant Jewish life in New York in the mid-twentieth century and the particular ramifications of that life on a woman. This book will resonate with any reader wanting to connect with a rich and tender past."
-- Wendy Wasserstein, Author of The Heidi Chronicles
"Who She Was is a marvel of re-creative history. Eleanor Hatkin emerges from this work as fully and unsparingly realized as any heroine in modern American literature; and here lies a secondary marvel: for all its journalistic exactitude, every page reads as dramatically taut and willfully crafted as a novel."
-- Richard Price, Author of Freedomland and Clockers
"Who She Was is a precise, meticulous re-creation of a woman's experience that attempts -- as does all great literature -- to take a stand against time and loss and insignificance. Within the pages of what the author humbly calls this 'imperfect, impermanent reincarnation,' a young woman, an era, and a culture now lost are restored through diligent research, eloquent prose, and a son's tender impulse to redeem his mother's brief life."
-- Alice McDermott, Author of Child of My Heart and Charming Billy