THE BOOK: Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth.
PUBLISHED IN: 2008.
THE EDITOR: Carolyn Jackson, Senior Editor at Second Story Press and a long time colleague of mine. We met as members of the Society of American Travel Writers.
THE PUBLISHER: Second Story Press for 25 years dedicated to publishing feminist-inspired books for adults and young readers – award-winning books that entertain, educate, and empower.
SUMMARY: In these auto-fictional stories I have mined my own experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors through the character of Leah Smilovitz. Leah lives in a world trapped between two solitudes. She belongs neither to her parent’s painful generation nor to her own, freshly minted in the freedoms and contradictions of Montreal in the 1950s and 60s. Growing up in a community of immigrants forever bound to the past, Leah tests the boundaries of her independence, explored in nine linked stories that take the reader from Leah’s early childhood to middle age.
THE BACK STORY: I was nine when I decided I would become a writer, but not just yet. As I grew older, people asked what I was writing, I’d explain I had some living to do first. I knew once I started I could never stop. I finally started in my late 40s. And I haven’t stopped yet.
WHY THIS TITLE?: My father was a storyteller and I grew up on a rich menu of Russian fairy tales. My mother, toughened by her life and the war, thought that stories would prevent me from facing life’s harsh realities. She said that my father told me stories but she would always tell me the truth.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: When we read, we encounter stories that connect us to others and to ourselves. When I write, it is to connect with others and find our commonality. These are stories about youthful rebellion, loves found and lost, and the pain of being helpless in the face of irreparable circumstances.
“This is basic storytelling at its best, relying on strong writing and interesting characters to drive the action forward. Roitman’s writing is evocative and poignant, capable of turning phrases that will open your emotions like a key in a lock…Roitman’s ability to capture enormity with just the right measure of words and accuracy is also remarkable.” (Adriana Palanca, Montreal Review of Books).
“Mr. Greene and the Studebaker” is one of the best stories, with never a false note… Gina Roitman is a poet. This book, filled with strong writing, absorbing characters, believable events, and complicated relationships, reads like poetry, restrained and full of emotion. (Rita Berman Frischer, Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter)
“This heartfelt and humorous collection of stories…cuts to the chase with great wit and one-liners like the time Leah disappoints her mother, who then quips, “I survived Hitler for this?!” Tell Me a Story… is storytelling at its best.” (Richard Burnett, Hour)
AUTHOR PROFILE: “I’ve had a varied career from running my own communications agency to working in a chimpanzee sanctuary, and these days, happily writing biographies and working as an editor and writing coach. On my way to writing my first novel, I got sidetracked (for 8 years) when I ended up the subject and co-producer of an award-winning documentary called, My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me. http://www.nazimidwife.com The novel is back on track and my hope is to have it published by 2017.”
AUTHOR COMMENTS: “Upon birth, I believe we are handed a suitcase that someone else has packed. It is baggage we will carry all our lives and yet, if we were passing through customs with it, what would we answer when asked: did you pack this bag? This suitcase that we lug everywhere is filled with the hurts and happiness, triumphs and disasters, traumas and terrors that our parents have gifted us and often includes leftovers from what their parents handed to them. The burden is passed along without conscious intention; it’s inexorable. And, if we don’t open and examine the contents, we can never lighten our load and be free of what is beyond our control.” For more on this concept, read my May 8, 2014 blog http://www.ginaroitman.blogspot.ca/
A Whole Heart by Gina Roitman
Bounce. Bounce. Thwap.
Bounce. Bounce. Thwap.
The rubber ball ricochets off the asphalt, hits the wall of the apartment building and with a stinging thwap, returns to Leah’s outstretched hand.
The lane is empty except for a few sparrows, twittering on a clothesline. It’s July. The asphalt shimmers in the heat and there’s a deafening buzz that know-it-all Miriam says is insects but Leah is convinced that it’s the sound of a zillion voices squeezed inside telephone wires.
Bounce. Bounce. Thwap.
Leah has been alone in the lane all morning. In a continuous movement, she raises her arm, swipes at the sweat on her brow, and throws the ball.
In her shorts, a nickel is agitating, waiting to be spent on a Popsicle that she’ll have to share with her younger brother when he gets home from day camp at three. Leah has refused to go to camp.
“I’m not going back,” she tells her mother. “I don’t wanna play stupid girlie games all day.”
She braces herself for the sharp words but her mother doesn’t respond in her usual way, only shakes her head and gives Leah a funny look. Since she started working at the factory, Leah’s mother has been full of surprises. This summer, they don’t fight as much. It doesn’t feel right. Her mother used to say that you have to fight to survive.
Leah has been hurling the ball all morning, a little harder each time. The harder the throw, the more stinging the catch. Her palm glows red and tingles but she doesn’t mind.
She rolls the rubber ball in her hand the way her mother rolls raw matzo balls. Leah misses her friends. Everyone’s away in the country with their parents: Ruthie in Rawdon, Terry is Ste. Agathe and the twins, Miriam and Myra, at sleep-away camp. Leah should be in Val David. That’s where they always spend the summer. It’s not fair. They should be in the country and her mother should be making matzo balls or hard boiled eggs and dill pickle sandwiches for lunch while she and her brother swim in the river or comb the farmer’s fields to catch and torment grasshoppers. On the weekends, Leah and her father should be digging for worms, fishing for perch. But this summer Leah is alone on the empty streets all because her mother has to work. Nobody else’s mother has to. Nobody else’s mother makes breakfast and then leaves. She slips her hand into her pocket feeling for the safety pin and the apartment key. The hard, cool metal is reassuring.
On the street, a car rumbles by. Leah turns and runs down the laneway to spot it and catalogue the colour, a game she plays to amuse herself but it’s gone so she races back to her starting point as fast as she can. Her heart pounds and she places her hand over it. Through the thin blouse, the thumping against her palm brings comfort. She
thinks about her mother’s sisters, dead in the war. Her mother talks about them all the time, about how much she misses them. Leah doesn’t know how they died; wonders what it’s like to be dead, not to feel anything, not anything at all. For ever. Her mother says to be dead is to be like a stone. Cold and unmoving.
Alone most of the day, Leah often races like a wild animal down the lane just so she can feel her heart, to be sure that she is not going to die.
Another car passes but Leah ignores it and resumes throwing the ball.
Ruthie’s family has a car, an old one with a running board. And they have a budgie bird named Tweetie. Ruthie, an only child, has a lot of everything. Even more than Terry whose parents own a country house. All Leah has is a baby brother and parents with funny accents who work all the time.
Leah’s mother says soon they’ll have something.
“A car?” Leah asks, hopefully.
“We need to make a living to make a life. First, we’re buying a ‘business,” her mother says, losing impatience, “that’s why I have to work.”
Leah thinks what her mother is saying is that when they buy the tailor shop, they’ll have a ‘busyness’. She tells her mother she doesn’t want a busyness, that her mother is busy enough. She just wants to be in the country.
Leah’s head swivels around.
A scrawny boy is standing beside her in the lane. She didn’t hear him coming.
“Maybe,” Leah says warily.
She looks him over. She doesn’t like sneaks and she’s never seen this boy in the neighbourhood before. She knows all the boys because they play baseball and tag with her in the laneways and alleys. He’s shorter than her, and is standing with his hands behind his back like the old men in the park. He has a scrawny neck that’s poking out of a worn, striped t-shirt and his head wobbles a bit like it was looking for a way to get loose.
“You just move here?” she asks. She’s juggling the ball like a hot potato. He watches her and she knows he wants to get his hands on it.
“No,” he says.
“Where do you live?”
“Over there.” He points to street at the other end of the lane.
“No, the one after. Bernard.” He kicks a stone with the toe of a scruffy brown Oxford.
“Oh yeah? How come I never seen you before?”
She puts the ball in her back pocket for safekeeping. The boy still has his hands behind his back and he’s not looking at her.
“I dunno. We’ve lived here awhile.”
“Oh yeah? Where do you go to school?”
He thinks for a moment.
“Where do you go to school?” he counters defiantly.
“I asked you first.”
He grimaces. Trapped. There are strict rules to this game.
“I go to Edward VII. I’m going into Grade Four,” and he peers at her demanding his fair share. “You?”
“I’m going into Grade Three,” she says making herself taller, “at Guy Drummond.”
After that, neither of them knows what to say so Leah takes the ball out of her pocket and they play Stand-O.
His name is Hermie and although they play for an hour, he doesn’t win a game. He’s slow and has butterfingers, can’t hold onto the ball. And he runs zig-zaggy like a girl. But he doesn’t give up or get mad. Not like other boys do when Leah bests them. Sometimes they say they don’t want to play anymore. But not Hermie. He stays until he gets too winded.
“I better get home.”
Leah says, “OK. You better. I don’t want you dying on me.”
“Will you be here tomorrow?” asks Hermie.
After that, Hermie shows up every day except on weekends when he and his parents go to the country.
“…for the fresh air,“ he says.
Leah stops running up and down the laneway. Anyway, Hermie can’t run. She taunts him about it, says it’s like playing with a girl. He says nothing, just looks at her, his head wobbling a bit. He never fights back and Leah starts to feel bad for being so mean so every once in awhile she lets him win at Stand-O. When Hermie doesn’t feel like running, they spend their time looking for insects and wounded birds to rescue.
One day, a coal truck stops alongside Leah’s building and they watch as a load rumbles down the coal chute. When the driver turns away, Leah snatches a lump off the top.
“To draw with,” she tells Hermie when he gives her a quizzical look.
They take turns with the lump, sketching on the pavement. Hermie draws a big face with lines for the body and limbs. Leah says it looks just like him, all skinny and funny, but he still doesn’t get mad. Instead he gives her a lopsided smile. She sketches some birds and a big heart. Hermie looks at it a little sadly, takes the coal from Leah and adds a circle inside the heart.
“What you do that for? That doesn’t belong there.”
Hermie looks at what he’s done, then turns away with a little shrug.
“You’re a real goof.”
Hermie shoots her an anxious look and Leah feels bad. She gives him a little shove with her shoulder.
“…but you’re a good goof.”
His face brightens and she shows him how to wipe his hands clean on the grass of the front lawn.
One morning, while playing Stand-O, Hermie twists his ankle badly. He doesn’t cry but Leah can see it really hurts.
“Go ahead and cry,” she tells him, “it’s okay.” Hermie says it’s not so bad but he can’t put his foot down so Leah pulls his skinny arm over her shoulder and walks him to his apartment building two blocks away.
The next day, Hermie doesn’t show up, not the day after that either. On the third day, Leah goes to his apartment building but she doesn’t know his last name or which apartment he lives in, so she sits on the stoop and waits for someone to come out.
She’s chewing on the inside of her cheek when the door opens and she feels a thump on her back. An old lady holding a poodle almost trips over her. The dog starts barking. Leah jumps up and rubs the spot where the door hit her.
“Steps are not for sitting on, young lady,” the old woman says, not unkindly.
“I’m sorry,” says Leah, “I’m waiting for my friend, Hermie.”
Leah is surprised to hear herself call Hermie a friend. He’s always been just Hermie.
“Hermie?” the woman says, “Oh, you mean Herman Schnitzer. Poor thing, they took him to the hospital again. It seems he’s in there more often than he’s out.”
“Did he break his ankle?” Leah asks, worried.
“His ankle? Oh, no dear,” says the old woman “it’s his heart again. Poor child, to struggle so since birth. Never able run and play like a child ought to.”
“Yes, dear, it has a hole in it and they can’t fix it…” She sees the look of apprehension on Leah’s face and gently adds, “…but he’s a fighter, your friend, Hermie.”
Without even a thank you, Leah flies off the steps. She races for the safety of the laneway and runs all the way home, and doesn’t stop until she gets to her front stoop. Blood is pounding in her ears and her whole heart is bouncing hard against her rib cage. She presses down on it with the palm of her hand and for the first time that summer, dissolves into tears.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Chapters-Indigo.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, http://www.ginaroitman.com/story.htm
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: My website: http://www.ginaroitman.com
My email: email@example.com