The Butcher's Daughter: A Memoir is not a story of meat-cutting, but of survival on its most basic level - and of the impact of that survival on family members generations later.
Florence Grende's parents survived the Nazi invasion in the Polish woods. She grew up in a house filled with ghosts. Images of martyred relatives haunted their lives: "In my home, framed photos of dead relatives stared out from our walls. Images of the martyred many spilled over from albums and shoeboxes, apparitions rising into the ether like ghosts. I was raised with them, the slain, the lost."
Grende brings readers into this world, which opens on an immigrant ship where a child clutching a doll knows that America - and hope - lies only an ocean away. She introduces her audience to a broken world where hopes for the future are in stark and sharp contrast to a too-immediate past filled with death and struggle, and emphasizes this immediacy using stinging, biting language that fully captures despair: "I haven't discovered yet that Mameh wonders why she's still alive, still gets up each morning tasting bitterness, choking on air, while the men in her family, her brother, father, uncle are all dead. I haven't discovered yet that Mameh views her own womanhood as less than: less than men, less than intelligent, less than worthy."
But hers is also a magical place of family members healing from the anguish of their past, brought to life in passages that simultaneously affirm life and death and the importance of these connections: "Carrots, fried onions, raw eggs, pike, and carp form a milky mixture. My grandmother’s kerchief covered head bends low over the wooden bowl as she chops, shapes dumplings, then, with thick fingers, drops gefilte fish into boiling water. Opening her prayer book she faces east, whispers familiar words while the big pot bubbles, steam rising, then disappearing into air. The day before, the carp swam lazy circles in our tub, its mouth a slow series of o's. Bubbe grasps the chicken by its yellow legs, holds on tight, swings it high over my head three times, reciting a blessing with each revolution. I watch its flurry of feathers spread wide, the snow white of wing. I am eight or nine, awestruck that this wild creature, appearing like an angel, is in our apartment."
Many family memoirs and memoirs of survival and struggle fall short of depicting the very nuances they seek to bring to life; but this isn't so in The Butcher's Daughter. Florence Grende's ability to lift the moments, impressions, thoughts, and passions from experience and capture them in their crystalline seconds of agony and ecstasy elevates her story above and beyond similar-sounding accounts, creating an singularly striking piece that doesn't have to hammer home its message, because every whisper is a powerhouse of passion.
"Here's how I feel it still …" is a phrase replete in every chapter and throughout her story, running swiftly and slowly like a river of emotion that turns into a stream, then rages.
Florence Grende is a witness, safekeeping memories and dreams for herself, her family, and future generations. Come along with her on a journey that winds from a family's struggles not just to survive, but with survival's aftermath. It’s a journey centered in ancient customs and rituals and modern translations and dilemmas and, under her hand, is one which evolves from being nobody's business to being everyone's business, reaching deep into closely-held memories to pluck out the gems of wisdom that keep life meaningful.