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Intergenerational Secrets

An enticing glimpse at a little shtetl on the Canadian prairie.

Holding My Breath by Sidura Ludwig (Shaye Areheart, $23), a coming-of-age story set in Winnipeg’s shtetl-like North End in the middle of the 20th century, brings to life a time and place with such detail, both sensual and factual, that someone who grew up in that time and place — like this reviewer, born on the very same street where the protagonist lives with her family — finds herself on nearly every page.

What is so remarkable about this coincidence is at the very heart of the book. Growing up in Winnipeg in the 1950s, we used to read longingly about the world outside the isolated prairie. There were no books then about a Jewish girl coming of age in Winnipeg. We made do with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is this intimate, hidden world, this northern outpost hothouse that Sidura Ludwig recreates with tenderness.

The story unfolds in the voice of Beth, an only child named for her zeyde, who was Binyamin Rabinowitz in Russia but Ben Rosen in Canada. In the character of Beth, Ludwig harvests the stories of the generation that preceded her, the transition generation that was born into the Winnipeg shtetl and struggled to escape the stranglehold of tradition, family, security and, not least of all, geography. It is Beth who says, at the beginning of Chapter Two, “I have become my family’s narrator… . I have strung together all of these disconnected stories and details, and made them flow in a narrative.”

Beth’s mother represents duty and acceptance, finding “naches” in her home and family. Beth writes about her mother’s attraction to her father. “My father smelled like everything she thought she wanted in her life — the McAdam Avenue house, four children, a membership to Hadassah.” Her mother’s path of escape from the stultifying, odiferous shtetl life was not to leave Winnipeg but to be a “Successful Jewish Woman” whose achievements include setting a nice table, serving as an upstanding member of the artistic and literary “Monday Group” and raising a successful daughter. It’s understood that this daughter, in seeking independence as an adult, may want to leave the North End, but only to journey as far as a new home in the upwardly mobile South End — “as far as any Monday Group member imagined her daughter moving.”

But Beth’s mother has two sisters who chose very different paths. Carrie, who never married and works as a seamstress, still openly mourns the loss of their only brother in the war while hiding her real grief. Her bid for freedom, as Beth learns eventually, was a pregnancy that ended with temporary banishment to Montreal and a baby given to an adoption agency. The youngest sister, Sarah, is a beauty who wants to make a name for herself as an actress. But she succumbs to an appropriate Winnipeg beau, gives birth to a daughter and only then leaves to follow her dream, which never really materializes.

These are familiar stories, and the characters never come fully alive. They slip in and out of the narrative, functioning more as cautionary tales than as flesh and blood. Both the strength and weakness of Holding My Breath is its documentary quality; one wanders through this book as if through a marvelous museum. Ludwig, a talented and promising young author, captures the past even in the smells she invokes, from Beth’s dying Baba, who smelled “like pea soup and sweat” to an old house which was starting to smell “like fifty guests, sweaty and nearly spoiled like the chicken soup.”

Judy Gerstel grew up in Winnipeg in the 1950s. She’s been a journalist at several American dailies, most recently at the Toronto Star.