Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: Becoming Alice by Alice Rene

The only colors I could see were the red armbands with white circles that had black, hooked crosses inside them.  Some people watching the parade waved flags that looked like the armbands.  I couldn't understand why they were so excited about men in such ugly, drab uniforms.

But the beat of the music made me jump up and down as the band passed by.  It was followed by rows and rows of men lifting their feet high in the air, pounding their heels onto the pavement as if they were hammers -- their chests were puffed out -- their chins held high.  All our neighbors were smiling and cheering and waving their arms.  The excitement made me hop like a rabbit -- until Mama grabbed my arm and brought me to a standstill.  Her face twisted into a knot.  I'd never seen her like that before.  I didn't understand why she was so frightened.  (from Becoming Alice, page 4)

The Nazis parade into Vienna when Ilse Fell is just 6 years old.  She doesn't understand how the Nazis coming to power will turn her world upside down, but she soon realizes that her family is different from others and somehow in trouble because they are Jewish.  Life changes dramatically in a blink of an eye.  Her father, a doctor, is no longer allowed to practice medicine.  The family's bank account is frozen, and he is soon forced to flee to avoid being arrested by the Nazis.  Eventually, Ilse, her mother, and her older brother are able to join her father, and after much waiting and worrying, the Fells make their way to the United States, settling in Portland, Oregon.

Becoming Alice is Alice Rene's memoir about fleeing Europe in the early days of World War II and her family's struggle to succeed in America.  Things aren't easy for the Fells when they arrive in Portland.  Ilse -- who later chooses the name Alice when she becomes a U.S. citizen -- enters third grade without knowing any English or having ever set foot in a classroom.  While her parents are learning how to run a grocery store -- her father isn't allowed to practice medicine right away -- Alice is trying to find herself and make friends.

Rene's memoir is a page-turner.  Opening with the tension and the fear of the Nazi invasion and all the hoops her family must jump through to leave Europe, I didn't want to put the book down.  It's almost as if Rene has stepped back in time, back into the shoes of little Ilse.  Rene tells the story from her little-girl point of view, re-living the memories, rather than simply recounting them in hindsight.  Once in America, the book becomes both an immigrant story and a coming-of-age story, and Rene does a wonderful job of showing how she and her parents overcame their initial struggles.  I like that she doesn't romanticize her story and portrays her parents as real people with flaws; she remembers her father's temper, his need to feel as though he is better than everyone else and always right.  I think that we can all relate to Alice on some level in butting heads with our parents when they want us to do one thing but we want to do another.

My only complaint is that the book ends too soon, and the epilogue doesn't make mention of all the family and friends who play a big role in Alice's story.  I wonder what happened to them all.  I'm really picky about memoirs, so for me to wish that it had been longer is saying a lot.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Becoming Alice from the author for review purposes.  I am an Amazon affiliate.

© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.


bermudaonion said...

I can see why you're still into the World War II books - this one sounds amazing. Maybe the world would be a better place if more people would remember the past.

Suko said...

Wonderful review, Anna. I am adding this to my TBR stacks right away.

Blodeuedd said...

it does sound really good, and you got me curious about how life will be for her. But I would also like to know what happened to all

Sullivan McPig said...

This book sounds like something I should read.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Excellent, clearsighted review - and one of my favourite periods to read about. Thanks indeed for sharing

Happy Tuesday


Dana said...

Great review! I love that quote you chose.

Serena said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. I'll have to check it out at some point and borrow your copy.

Carrie said...

If you say you liked this one - I know I'll love it! It's going right onto the TBR stack! This book sounds like it has an amazing story to tell and I can't wait to get to it!

Thanks for the review and recommendation!

Sandy Nawrot said...

You know how much I love these! I would be disappointed too, with the lack of follow-up. When it comes to memoirs, I have been known to try to chase down follow-up on the Internet. I want to know that they are OK.

Kristen said...

This sounds really good! I don't recall too many war memoirs that take on the who emigration displacement stuff too.

Mystica said...

I would love to read this book. Sounds so very good.

Iliana said...

Oh I think the end would bug me too but on the whole this book sounds wonderful. I hadn't heard of this so thank you for the review, Anna!

Stephanie said...

This sounds terrific. Many books about fleeing Europe during World War II end with leaving the country -- we never see the family's readjustment to a new culture.

Alice Rene said...

For those who are interested in what happened to the characters in "Becoming Alice," a brief follow-up is found in the Epilogue section of the book. But briefly, Alice eventually had (and still has) a happy marriage and three great kids. Her brother Fredi unfortunately was troubled most of his life. Her Mom an Dad followed her to California where she cared for them until they died.

Alice said...

I recently got very interested in books about war and WWII, so this memoir really appeals to me. Thanks for the review, Anna. I'll keep this book in mind!

Anna said...

Bermudaonion: I agree. And believe me, I still have tons of unread WWII books on my shelf!

Suko: I'm looking forward to your thoughts on it.

Blodeuedd: Alice writes about herself and her family in such a way that you feel like you truly know them. I don't think she is obligated to divulge everything, but she certainly made me curious!

Sullivan McPig: I hope you give it a try.

Hannah: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it.

Dana: Thanks!

Serena: Of course, whenever you like.

Carrie: I hope you like it as much as I did!

Sandy: There's not a whole lot missing, so it doesn't leave you hanging, but you feel like you truly know Alice and her family, so you're definitely curious.

Kristen: Me neither, which is why I really liked this one.

Mystica: I hope you give it a try.

Iliana: You're welcome! It's definitely worth giving a try.

Stephanie: That's what made this one so unique.

Alice Rene: Thank you for stopping by and for providing more follow up about your family.

Alice: You're welcome. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point.