It is not an easy task to reconstruct details of a family secret or mystery; whether the players would rather bury the history or the plot twists are lost due to neglect or age or even courthouse fire, sometimes we have to come to terms with the fact that some stories are unknowable. It's a frustrating state of affairs, to say the least. I was drawn to Miranda Richmond Mouillot's new memoir in part because of my own family mystery—the events surrounding my grandparents' divorce in the 1940s. My grandma didn't talk about what she didn't want to talk about, and that was that. To ask, even politely, was to put oneself at peril. I loved my (step)grandfather with all my heart and only occasionally wondered about the Willis part of my name growing up, so the unwritten rules against family sleuthing were largely unchallenged. But at some point we all just want to know more about ourselves, yes? Over 70 years later my family has made invaluable connections with long-lost relatives but the details of what happened and why will never be explained, even as the ripple effects are still keenly felt.
Mouillot has her own grandparent mystery to solve in A Fifty-Year Silence: after surviving World War II and Nazi-occupied France by escaping to brutal yet life-saving refugee camps in Switzerland, her grandparents Anna and Armand separate, leaving the house they purchased in a French village to ruin. Anna (a physician) walks out on Armand (an interpreter at the horrific Nuremberg Trials) taking their two children with her, never to speak to him again. The rift is so deep that Miranda grows up knowing both her grandparents, but not realizing that they ever knew each other until later.
While she works to reconstruct as much of her grandparents' story as possible, often with her grandmother's curious encouragement, she struggles to shuffle the pieces into a story that makes sense. At one point, her frustration brims over with her grandmother: "I'm writing a story, but is it even your story? I don't know. I've learned so many disconnected things about you—it's hard to put them into a narrative." The stories she learns from her grandmother don't always match up with the (far more rare) ones her ailing grandfather tells her a world away in Switzerland, where she visits often. Heartrending anecdotes are included: the risks of escape, the true horror of serving as witness to the first official accounts of the Holocaust, the lasting effects of the trauma of survival; they are valuable insights into a fuller picture of World War II. In the end, however, it is Mouillot who must decide what they all mean for her, for her parents, and of course, for Anna and Armand.
As I read, I was struck by how lofty a goal the author set for herself in writing this book. She honors her grandparents' histories both together and separately with respect, curiosity, and occasional obsession, though never claims a "case closed" moment. She weaves the ripple effects into her own life throughout each chapter, wondering how much of her own life's outcome was influenced by her grandparents (spoiler: a lot). I was most impressed by how devoted she was to the mystery, because she was able to discover so much that deserves to be known about sourrvival (spoken with her grandmother's accent), even if the heart of the matter will never be fully known. That might be all our lost stories need: someone to try their best to honor them, in spite of (because of?) the futility of knowing them completely.