Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Cure for Holocaust Envy: Reading Stuart Ross' Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew

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A Cure for Holocaust Envy: Reading Stuart Ross' Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew

For two full generations of North American Jews, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust has meant living with familial as well as cultural rupture. It persists, more than half a century later, even as the tattooed grandmothers and traumatized great-uncles die off in nursing homes and hospitals and the decimated lineages fill in with nieces and grandsons. It persists as a burden even for those whose comfortable, middle-class lives in cities like Toronto seem to belie the memory of such suffering and loss.

Narratives of Jewish experience in Toronto tend to skirt around the edges of the Holocaust, probing instead at more local -- and perhaps more salvable -- wounds. Nearly half a dozen novels -- among them Lauren Davis' The Stubborn Season, Karen Tulchinsky's The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, and Steven Hayward's The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke -- engage with the anti-Semitic riots at Christie Pits in 1933. Other literary works focus on life in the Ward and Kensington Market during their Jewish heyday (see Augustus Bridle's 1924 book Hansen: A Novel of Canadianization, Joe Rosenblatt's memoir Escape from the Glue Factory and Carey Fagan's children's story The Market Wedding), or (like Barbara Greenwood's Factory Girl or John Miller's A Sharp Intake of Breath) interrogate conditions experienced by Jewish workers in the garment industry in the early decades of the twentieth century. Other writers (see Sharon Abron Drache's The Golden Ghetto and Alvin Rakoff's Baldwin Street) disguise pain with humour.

Stuart Ross is very good at disguising pain with humour. Doing so, in fact, might be said to be his stock in trade. His stories and especially his poetry are described typically as "absurd," "surreal" and Quill & Quire, in an interview with Ross, called him "whimsical." A superficial reading of Ross' work might seem to confirm this view. The title poem in I Cut My Finger (Anvil Press, 2007) includes the line "I tried calling Dana but there wasn't any phone / and I cut my finger / dialing a rock." A line that seems funny (and like so many of Ross' other lines, elicits laughs when read aloud at a literary event) but whose deeper association with loss and longing is woven throughout a poem about seeking enlightenment and reconciliation and discovering instead that "solid / is the absence of solid."

Since 1995 Ross has lost his mother, his father and brother Owen. During this period he has also begun reclaiming his past. Visible at first were the more regular appearances of allusions to growing up in North York. Later, Ross began making use of Razovsky, his family's full name. In the notes to Hey, Crumbling Balcony: Poems New and Selected (ECW, 2003), Ross notes that after his mother's death "Jewish stuff started creeping into my work," adding, "Death does that."

Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew (ECW, 2011) brings all these elements together. It is, on the surface, a somewhat surreal novel about a man dealing with the possibly repressed memory of his mother (possibly) shooting a prominent Neo-Nazi on the street in front of a Bathurst Manor hardware store before dropping the gun into the grocery bag at her feet, "among the cartons of milk, the bananas, the celery, the cornflakes, the little boxes of powdered Jell-o, the packet of dry farfel, the length of Chicago 59 salami, and the kosher steaks wrapped in leaking brown paper."

It is the density of these details, set against the indistinct shape of the larger memory and its meaning, that characterizes not only Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew but the problem of the Holocaust in contemporary North American Jewish life. Ross' narrator, Ben, has no idea what to do with the memory, and thus retreats into what seem like safer reveries: seeing George Chuvalo perform in a makeshift boxing ring near his family's Wapaska-area cottage, eating fried macaroni and Jolly Green Giant corn niblets, fighting imaginary wars with his Johnny Seven, endlessly watching James Stewart and Kim Novak kiss and then tussle on the staircase in the film Vertigo. But even these memories have a dangerous edge to them, and return invariably to the image of his mother, dying of cancer and hoping to avenge, at long last, the deaths of her Polish relatives, (possibly) shooting a neo-Nazi so completely dead that his hard hat spins in the air above his body for an entire week.

In the novel Ross' teenaged narrator, confronted by a bully who demands he destroy the copy of Black Like Me he is reading, observes,

I know that I should defend myself. The problem with the Jews in the Second World War, with my mother's aunts and uncles and her grandparents, was that they just marched along to the trains and didn't fight back. That's what my mother said.

And this is the problem at the centre of Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, whose title alludes to three pivotal circumstances that seem to define its protagonist's life. His mother, a young child growing up in pre-War Toronto, pelted with snowballs for being a Jew and eventually seeking vengeance; her son, trembling and terrified of a dragonfly that lands on his knee, his flight seeming to foreshadow a life of passivity and retreat; and the question of his own Jewishness, summed up in an essay written for school, in which Ben writes, "you really have to struggle to be Jewish so you really believe in it."

Struggling to be Jewish, in contemporary Toronto, means many things. In Stephen Marche's novel Raymond and Hannah it means returning to Israel for Aliyah. In Bonnie Burstow's the House on Lippincott Street it means the trauma of the Holocaust is passed like a bloodied body from one generation to the next. And in Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew it means struggling with the meaning of memory itself.

The term "Holocaust envy" has come into controversial parlance in contemporary cultural criticism, referring to efforts to seek recognition and redress for other, less prominent genocides, perhaps chief among them the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The term is also used, albeit more quietly, to refer to the burden of guilt borne by the extended families of survivors as well as those Jews long since settled in North America, many of whom experienced the Holocaust only second hand or perhaps not at all.

There is a parallel perspective, as Ben writes in his school essay, that to be a Jew is to suffer. And part of this suffering has everything to do with wondering when -- or whether -- to fight back. And this is perhaps the central tension in Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew. To strain to remember the past, as his grandmother had, a woman "who spent her last two decades, nearly half her life, mourning for her brothers and sister, and uncles and aunts who had disappeared into the black-and-white abyss of occupied Poland, each clutching a small bag, a treasured family trinket, official papers;" or to seek revenge as his mother (possibly) does; or simply to keep on moving. And after inventorying all the things Rolf Kober -- the dead neo-Nazi -- has been an enemy to -- the Buzzcocks and Kate Bush and Leonard Cohen and Werner Herzog -- Ben sits in the green wing chair that still houses the ghosts of his parents' presence and thinks, "If I didn't move, if I chose never to move again, then I'd be dead. [...] I sat there, slumped in the green wing chair with the floral patterns I'd only just noticed, and thought about if I should move."

Want a free copy of Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew? ECW Press has graciously provided TWO copes to give away. Post a comment below and at the end of the month an esteemed algorithm will choose two winners completely at random.

Note 1: I am not a Jew but am married to one (albeit a self-proclaimed "devout Atheist") and have a little daughter whose much-admired curls would once have helped mark her for slaughter. On her father's side she has only a few cousins -- and a nearly impenetrable blankness where a rich and varied genealogy belongs.

Note 2: In the interests of disclosure of potential bias -- although this is a reflection and not a review -- I should note that Stuart Ross edited my book, Imagining Toronto, and has a poetry imprint with my publisher, Mansfield Press. I should add that I do not know Stuart at all well as a person (for all I know he's the one who shot that neo-Nazi in Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew), although I admire his writing and find him a tremendously valuable literary resource.

6 comments

Also heard about this book from a blogger I follow. Sounds like an interesting read!

I think this'll have to jump to the top of my to read pile once I procure myself a copy

I would love to read this book.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I saw the title. I enjoyed the review, sounds like a great read.

Sounds interesting-I like the title! also glad to have the other list of books you mention

Great review. Sounds like a fascinating novel.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page