Marianne Moore writes in her clever poem Poetry which begins “I too dislike it,” that sometimes a poem can offer up “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” This line came to mind as I was reading the recently published historical novel Those Who Are Saved by Alexis Landau. The story relates the decision, made in the belief that it would save her, that a Jewish couple in France makes to leave their young daughter with a farm family as they are being interred in a “work camp.” In a horrid irony, the couple escapes to the United States but is unable to take their daughter with them. The novel focuses on the pain of the separation and the long search to reunite the family.
There are many approaches to historical fiction. Some focus on meticulous research about appropriate details but with invented characters. Some use actual characters and invent the details. In both cases the writer can succeed or fail, less on the details but more on the strength of characterization and plot. But Landau, whose details, plot and characters are generally convincing, adds a third approach. She invents the central characters but places them in the Jewish emigre community of the 1930’s in Los Angeles. Here the actual writers, artists, film makers, actors, singers and psychologists appear as friends of the central characters.
For me this aspect of the book was the most compelling. While I was aware of the large Jewish emigre community in New York City during the same time frame, I was unaware of the parallel group in and around Los Angeles. Apparently I shared this ignorance with the author, a Jewish woman who had grown up in the area with little familiarity with its history. Although I would never characterize the real people in the book as “toads,” I do think the writer very skillfully inserts actual people into an invented scene, proving Moore’s point that we are drawn into such portrayals.
Even though I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the novel because of occasional plot devices which left me cold, the book definitely captures both the atmosphere among Jewish emigres and their constant anguish from having escaped a fate in Nazi Europe unlike so many of their friends and family. That alone made it worth reading for me.