At times, Long’s stories feel straight out of a war drama. An anecdote about her mother having a friendly chat with Ulrich Graf, Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard and friend, strikes a chilling note (and contrasts with Long’s mother's later vehement anti-Nazi sentiments). The book is full of similar larger-than-life moments, including a humorous encounter with the von Trapp Family Singers (of Sound of Music fame) and a tale of Long’s mother sneaking into the 1936 Olympics. The family’s personal challenges are no less intense. Long is sometimes dismissive of her brother, viewing him as giving in to mental illness and substance abuse; readers may wish she’d put more effort into reflecting on how his coping mechanisms mirrored her frantic quest for external sources of inspiration and approval.
Long’s central message is that nothing surpasses the power of positive thinking, especially when healing from trauma. Citing Pollyanna, Norman Vincent Peale, and music from the last few decades, Long celebrates her positive attitude, which she believes drove her personal and professional successes: becoming a top-notch salesperson, finding a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism, and raising her family. Readers will find themselves quoting Long’s many aphorisms long after they finish this moving memoir.
Takeaway: This emotional memoir will resonate with readers interested in first-person-accounts of life in Nazi Germany, immigration in wartime, and family strife.
Great for fans of Irmgard A. Hunt’s On Hitler’s Mountain, Wolfgang Samuel’s German Boy.
Design and typography: A-
Marketing copy: B
Bittersweet Memories: The Life Story of an Immigrant Daughter will appeal to memoir readers with a particular interest in immigrant family histories. It tells of the author, who, as the young daughter of a German scientist, immigrated to America only to find the land of opportunity rife with challenges that ranged from isolation to prejudice and mental illness.
The family left their home due to the rise of Nazism, but as they faced prejudice in America, many of the same shadows of threat emerged, as in a law against immigrants owning dogs, which led to their beloved family pet being taken to the pound when neighbors reported them. Her scientist father was encouraged to come to America, and never had joined the Nazi party, but this didn't protect his family from community reactions to the presence of Germans in town, as Germans became suspect and despised.
From their initial experiences in America to the special struggles that evolved as they settled in, experiencing conflicts both within and outside the family, readers will be engrossed by Barbara H. Long's survey of the challenges of daily life and difficult living situations, as well as social interactions that belayed the promise of a positive, safe life in a new home.
Another plus to this story is that she follows her experiences and their influence from childhood through adulthood, discussing not just events that defined these times, but those which influenced their attitudes, fears, and abilities.
This approach is much wider-ranging than the usual immigrant memoir, which tends to focus on either childhood or present-day experience alone. The result encourages a fuller appreciation of not just social experience, but the mental impact and challenges of war times and immigrant roots.
Bittersweet Memories is a powerful memoir that draws readers into not just Long's life, but the lasting impacts of immigrant choices and experience as she traverses her mother's mental illness and a confusing world at war on many fronts. Anyone who reads immigrant stories will find it revealing and well-written.
D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review