Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014: Maximum Shelf: A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France

Crown: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Crown: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Crown: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Crown: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France

by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Long after World War II ended in Europe in 1945, the effects of the brutal conflict continued, haunting survivors and rippling from one generation to the next. In A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France, Miranda Richmond Mouillot shares the story of two of those survivors: her grandparents, Anna and Armand, both of whom were Jewish.

Less than a decade after the couple wed in 1944, Anna walked out on Armand, taking their two children with her. They cut off all contact with one another and never revealed what led to their bitter divide. As a child, Richmond Mouillot had no reason to connect her vivacious, resourceful grandmother, a doctor in New York, with her taciturn grandfather, a translator who lived in Geneva. They hadn't been in the same room or even spoken to each other in decades. In her mind, Anna and Armand were separate entities, occupying different worlds and silent about the life they once shared.

The discovery that her grandparents had once been married shaped the direction of Richmond Mouillot's future. "The more I contemplated it, the more I felt I had no right to go on with my own life until I had learned what had happened in theirs." In 2004, after graduating from college, she moved to France to research and write a book about Anna and Armand and uncover the reason behind their estrangement.

Instead of the year Richmond Mouillot anticipated devoting to the project, it took 10. "There were holes in my plan," she admits. "Two, to be precise: Armand and Anna." They remained resolute in their silence, making it challenging for her to write about a subject no one wanted to discuss. When she began she had barely any factual information, not even the date her grandparents had married. At times she despaired she would ever find anything concrete to illuminate the mystery behind their estrangement and almost abandoned the book altogether.

Instead Richmond Mouillot persevered. Like a detective sifting through evidence, she painstakingly searched for clues. Slowly she pieced together Anna and Armand's story using their refugee files and other sources, including a "jumble" of reminisces her grandmother had written down over the years about her wartime experiences. Richmond Mouillot also coaxed stories from her reticent grandparents, using details gleaned from one to get the other to open up and talk about what had transpired.

Anna and Armand met as students in Strasbourg prior to the outbreak of World War II. During the war years, they struggled to survive, sometimes together and sometimes alone. With a friend's aid, they finally made a harrowing journey out of Nazi-occupied France, crossing snow-covered mountains over the border into Switzerland, where they were placed in different refugee camps.

Writing A Fifty-Year Silence helped Richmond Mouillot better understand how her grandparents' experiences impacted her childhood even when she wasn't consciously aware of it. In hindsight, she could see that it related to why she constantly thought about places to hide and why she kept her shoes by the door in case a hurried exit had to be made; why there were always candles and matches at hand in the house and why her mother snapped off the radio or closed the newspaper at the mention of certain subjects.

Later, even as Richmond Mouillot resolved to follow her own path, Armand and Anna "exerted an undeniable influence" over her decisions, including her choice to settle in France, the country where her Romanian grandmother and Swiss-born grandfather had met, fallen in love and feared for their lives; "the country they both regretted and refused to live in, where they'd bought and abandoned an ancient stone ruin."

With her grandmother's encouragement, Richmond Mouillot moved into that ancient stone ruin, a barely habitable house in a medieval village (the place where she met her husband and currently resides). "I believed the very act of living there would be a kind of listening, that it would help me see my way to the truth," she explains. "I felt like an archeologist, or an undersea diver, certain that if I picked through the debris in the house I would find something terrible, or something wonderful, or maybe both, that would provide me with a key, or a hint at least, to the story of their love and separation. Or so I sensed, but the truth was far off to me then."

Eventually Richmond Mouillot found the truth in a place she didn't expect. She delved into an area of Armand's life she had previously overlooked: his postwar years working at the Nuremberg Trials, where he was one of two Jewish interpreters. She had filed away this time in his career as a "proud accomplishment" and then forgotten about it in her quest to learn more about Anna and Armand's relationship because her grandmother hadn't been there. But it was the tragic knowledge Armand acquired at Nuremberg that ultimately broke apart his marriage to Anna.

At one point when Richmond Mouillot was struggling with researching the book, she asked herself, given all the "anonymous drops in the rainstorm of history," was there a point in focusing on Anna and Armand? The answer is a resounding yes. A Fifty-Year Silence is Richmond Mouillot's powerful expression of love for her grandparents and a poignant contribution to the pantheon of Holocaust and World War II literature.

This quietly riveting story is one of love, loss, sadness and survival, with passages so beautifully written you'll want to pause and re-read some of them. Through the lens of her grandparents' lives, Richmond Mouillot explores the legacy of tragedy, the responsibility of keeping history alive and the emotional ravages of war. She flawlessly and compellingly blends Anna and Armand's stories with her own--the need to understand her heritage and make sure her grandparents didn't "disappear" while at the same time forging her own life and identity. Learning, as she says, "to live my life forward, even as the past swirls and eddies around me." --Shannon McKenna Schmidt
Crown, $26, hardcover, 9780804140645, January 20, 2015

Crown: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Miranda Richmond Mouillot: Remembering and Forgetting the Past

Originally from Asheville, N.C., Miranda Richmond Mouillot lives in the South of France with her husband, daughter and cat. In 2004, after graduating from Harvard, she moved to France to uncover the truth about her grandparents' mysterious, decades-long estrangement and piece together the extraordinary story of their experiences during and after World War II. Richmond Mouillot is an independent translator and editor.

In the Author's Note, you describe A Fifty-Year Silence as "a work of memory, not of history." Can you share more about this and how it reflects the book?

A Fifty-Year Silence is not primarily about assembling a definitive, objective account of what happened: it's about remembering what happened and about how remembering affects our lives and the stories we tell. In some ways, I was being literal in calling the book a "work." As I think anyone with trauma or tragedy in his or her family knows, remembering is hard, painful work, with none of the distance that history texts afford. What if we forget? What if we can't forget? Wrestling such memories onto the page is a form of labor for the mind and heart. Of course, once those memories are written down, they become a kind of historical source themselves.

To me, history is a spectrum, or a continuum. On one end is what the French call "history with a capital 'H,'" which draws on many sources to explain the forces that shaped society and determine its present state. At the other end is "history with a lowercase 'h,'" that is, individual people's stories. So framing this book as a work of memory was also a way of orienting it on the "big-H/little-h" spectrum: it's a "little-h" story about two people and their grandchild that points to "big H" questions about the role of memory in our lives, and about how and why we remember.

A photo of Miranda's grandparents found in her grandfather's papers after A Fifty-Year Silence was completed, dated July 12, 1944--their wedding day.

You worked on A Fifty-Year Silence for 10 years, encountering challenges along the way, including your grandparents' reticence to discuss the past. What kept you going? Why was it important for you to uncover the reason behind their estrangement and to tell their story?

It's impossible to overemphasize the weight and presence of the past in my family and my personal life. As far back as I can remember, I have sensed something lurking that had to be solved, or said, or released. So what kept me going in those first years was my desire to find out what had happened and why it had made my family the way it was.

It's also impossible to overemphasize the weight and presence of my grandparents' personalities. They were terrible, wonderful, utterly unique human beings. When my grandfather began to lose his memory, and I was forced to acknowledge that they would not be around forever, I was overtaken by the desire to capture them in some way, to preserve them for posterity. That desire was a powerful motivation, which grew stronger as the years passed.

In the end, though, it was love. They had endured so much and lost so much; remembering it all was such a heavy burden for them. I wanted them to be able to leave this world with the knowledge that someone would be holding onto their memories. My grandmother read an early version of the book, and it was a gift to see how happy it made her to know something of her life had been written into a story. My grandfather was so senile that I didn't think to show him the book until it was a bound galley, and then only at the urging of a family member. The look on his face when I put it into his hands was the closest thing to a miracle I've ever seen: for a few minutes, the scattered pieces of his mind reassembled. "That's extraordinary," he said, pointing at the photograph of him and my grandmother on the cover. "Who did that?" I knew in that moment that the 10 years had been worth it.

How has your perception of each of your grandparents changed since writing this book and learning more about their lives during and after World War II?

My perception of them hasn't changed so much as deepened. I always thought they were brave, bizarre, tragic, funny and beautiful, and I still do. But I find much more nuance in those adjectives than I did when I started. I guess my conception of their heroism has undergone the most significant change. When I began this project I thought they were heroic mostly for their actions and experiences during and immediately after the war. Now I locate their heroism in how they built their lives in the years and decades that followed. It must have taken every ounce of my grandmother's courage to recognize and accept that my grandfather would never fully resurface from the tragedy of what he had learned at Nuremberg and to move herself and their children away from his whirlpool of sadness and guilt. And I see now how hard my grandfather must have worked to go about his quiet life in Geneva, an effort I couldn't comprehend at the outset.

Armand on one of his rare visits to Asheville, in June 1982 (carefully timed to avoid crossing paths with Anna)

A Fifty-Year Silence is centered on your grandparents' experiences, but it's your story as well, including the impact their silence had on your life. In what ways was writing the book transformative for you?

Writing this book laid to rest many of my demons; I no longer have nightmares. There's a reason we employ the phrase "putting it down on paper." A Fifty-Year Silence let me put down the past. I even might go so far as to say that committing the story to paper allowed me to forget. I think that forgetting is one of the biggest, scariest challenges the descendants of trauma survivors must face, and writing, to me, is the best way to confront that fear. I hope this book will help others carrying their own burdens of memory to escape into the forgetfulness that storytelling permits.

What would you most like readers to know about A Fifty-Year Silence?

How much I took out! Making any history into an accessible narrative requires a lot of cutting, and to me, part of the magic of this book is beneath the surface, in the stories it contains but doesn't tell.

Anna and Miranda in Pearl River, N.Y., June 1984

Tell us about living in the south of France in a medieval village. What has become of the house your grandparents bought?

In a word, life here is wonderful: we walk everywhere; nearly all our food is grown nearby; and we have a close-knit, supportive community. And of course it's very beautiful. The first landmark my daughter learned to identify from the car was the village's castle, and we eat dinner on a terrace overlooking the ruins of an ancient fort. Our house is built over a small tunnel connecting two narrow stone streets, which means I get to work in a vaulted space that looks a little like a teeny chapel, restored by my husband into a cozy office.

Indisputably, though, village life unfolds in very close quarters. Everyone here knows everyone else (and everyone else's business!), so it's probably not a great place to live if you're trying to hide something. I think for an American the closest comparable experience is life on a college campus but with people of all ages and backgrounds.

As for the house my grandparents bought, it is exactly where I left it, still tangled in issues of inheritance and ownership, none of which has anything to do with me. I do dream of living in it someday, but perhaps I don't need to. Our current house is on the same street, just the right size for our family, and I feel very lucky to be able to live in the place my heart calls home. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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