Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
By BILL DUNCAN
There are two kinds of book writers in this world. One writes fiction, sometimes mixing fact with imagination, but always with the flare of poetic license. The other is a non-fiction writer, who bases every written word on fact, gleaning those facts from interviews and research.
The two seldom cross literally lines and few are successful outside their chosen genre. I found that true with Suzanne Berne’s “Missing Lucile,” a talented novelists attempt at non-fiction. Let me make it clear, Berne is a superior writer with great credits for her last three novels. I admire the task she undertook in writing “Missing Lucile,” but too much of her imagination passed for facts.
“Missing Lucile,” was written, the author says, to find out why her father was so depressed most of his life. Lucile was his mother, who died when her father was six years old. Somehow, he felt she never loved him. “His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact,” Suzanne said.
She and her father became estranged when she was in her 20s and “weren’t much closer now that I am in my 40s.”
In writing the book about a grandmother she never knew, Suzanne hoped to finally reconcile with her father and perhaps put his mind to rest over losing his mother at such a young age. One day she finds an old box of odds and ends in her grandfather’s attic. The discovery launched her into this book project, hoping her probe might lead to a better understanding of her father, now in his 80s and ailing.
Lucile Kroger Berne was the daughter of Bernard Henry Kroger, the retail magnate of today’s $76 million grocery enterprise. Suzanne’s original idea was to write a fictional account of the family, with Lucile merely as one of the characters. In many respects there is more fiction, particularly with the “recreated” dialog and unsubstantiated facts.
In someone whys, the story reminded me of an earlier review I did on Suzanne’s best selling novel, “The Ghost at the Table,” because in many aspects, this is a ghost story billed as memories of a grandmother I never knew. Even Suzanne makes that statement by saying, “What is biography but another kind of ghost story.”
I did not find it to be a biography, but a dab of history that included the story of a wealthy family sired by the archetypal American self-made man, who had a head strong daughter named Lucile. She died of cancer at age 43, leaving behind a troubled young son, who became the author’s father. That father is actually the focus of the book because throughout his life was this mysterious person, Lucile, that was missing and one he knew so little about.
To her credit, Suzanne pieces together information from photo albums, scrapbooks and even scraps of paper written in Lucile’s handwriting to find “a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.” Sadly, she says by the time she began searching her grandmother’s life with the intent of sharing it with her father, she discovered “only too painfully of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had. What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was to help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence. She had been a person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own losses and chances, her own fierce desires.”
My conclusion is Suzanne achieved what she set out to do – put a face on a grandmother she never knew and before her father died, a face to “the woman that haunted him all his life.”
Even though there is fiction mixed with fact, “Missing Lucile” is a good read and a reminder there are ghost in every family.
(Bill Duncan can be reached at email@example.com or by writing to P.O. Box 812, Roseburg, OR 97470.)