I rarely come to an author’s fictional work as a result of reading her contributions in the blogosphere, periodicals, or on social media. It usually works the other way. I read a book or story that I like, and then explore more about the author. I “met” and came to deeply appreciate Erika Dreifus through her response to an article critical of novels set in the Holocaust that had troubled me. As a debut author about to release a book set in part during World War II, I was grateful for Dreifus’ defense of such works, and the illogic of the critic’s arguments. Eloquent and incisive, her article set me on the path of reaching out to her, and following her many blogs, reviews and articles, which I’ve written about here. An excellent writer herself, Dreifus gathers and freely offers to other writers interesting resources, craft tips, suggestions for reading and connections that are both helpful and inspiring. What’s more, she inhabits the little corner of a personal world that I do; a writer with a story of German Jewish grandparents who escaped the Holocaust and whose legacy lives strongly at our centers. From her robust and broad platform, Dreifus writes, reviews, collects and analyzes stories of that legacy, both from her own family and in the work of others. While by no means the only writer to engage in this topic, I have yet to come across another who does it with more generosity, breadth of literary knowledge in the “genre” and thoughtful excellence.
Perhaps I was predisposed to find Quiet Americans an incisive sampling of German survivors’ and their children’s’ experiences in America in the aftermath of WWII, (though being a good reviewer and curator of others’ work is no guarantee of the ability to write good fiction). These are taut stories, each with the titled ‘quiet’ suggesting restraint, secrecy, suppressed memory and the ordered contraction of everyday experience to its workable details. Dreifus does not shy away from the dualities of good and evil and the ironies that complicated many experiences of survivors, as in “For Services Rendered” in which a high ranking Nazi’s wife intervenes on behalf of her pediatrician’s family even as her husband orders the deaths of others. In “Lebensraum” a young, newly minted American soldier’s own escape from Germany made his supervision of kitchen worker German POWs a painful challenge to his dogged efforts to normalize as an American. In “Floating” the excruciating uncertainty of a risky pregnancy takes on deeper layers of agony in the grandmother-to-be whose family history of loss and uncertainty left her constantly needing to reassure herself that ‘everything will be all right.’ Finally, in “The Quiet American, or how to be a Good Guest,” the narrative voice behind all the stories comes out in measured dread of a visit to Germany and a (quiet) confrontation between contemporary perspectives of the meaning and primacy of the death and destruction wrought by the War. The well-bred restraint borne of German breeding, repressed and managed memories and the desire to assimilate goes head to head in all these stories with the history of uncontrollable evil and losses that reverberate in increasingly nuanced ways through successive generations. These stories are great reads in their own right, but are especially poignant and meaningful as they reflect a common family experience. Prosit, Erika Dreifus.