Monday, August 29, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein

Another genre I never read (except when I read it) is memoir. However, the book group I’ve been trying to get back to chose a memoir for its August selection. (Scheduling conflicts kept me from the meeting where Unbroken was discussed, so that book is still on my shelf, waiting to be read.)  The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein sounded lovely...and I really wanted to go to the meeting. So...memoir it is.

Harry Bernstein published this when he was in his nineties. It’s a look back at his childhood in a small mill town in Northern England in the years around WWI. What makes his situation unique is that one side of the street where he lives is Christian. Harry’s side of the street is Jewish. They are rigidly segregated by common consent.

The people of the town live in crushing poverty, and Harry’s family is among the poorest of the poor. He adores his mother, who does her best for the large brood. However, his father is a sulky, sullen alcoholic who terrorizes them all with his cruelty. Harry has two older sisters. Lily is ambitious, studious, and kind to Harry – his favorite sibling. His other sister, Rose, is mean-spirited and selfish, jealous of Lily, and resentful of their mother. He has brothers as well, whose presence in the book is more muted.

Throughout the book, Harry describes the struggles of the family, their bad times and the heartbreakingly-almost-good times. He rounds out the memoir with neighborhood stories, because despite the rigid separation, everyone knows everyone else’s business in that tiny community. The anecdotes make for a warm and interesting narrative. However, the focus whirls around Lily and a Christian neighbor, Arthur. Crisis erupts when the two fall in love.

This is a charming, well-written book that brings the reader into the home of this young Jewish boy in WWI era England. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a different mind-set in a different time.