In the acknowledgments of her thoughtful and moving memoir, "Departure Stories," Elisa Bernick thanks a mentor who counseled her not to turn her story into a novel. Readers, too, will want to thank this person, because the originality of the approach taken here is a big part of the book's charm. And considering the sad story it tells, "charming" itself is an accomplishment.
Bernick grew up the second of four siblings in a Jewish family in the almost completely Christian Minneapolis suburb of New Hope in the 1960s and '70s. The version of "Minnesota Nice" displayed by its residents did little to conceal their knee-jerk antisemitism. Bernick's mother, Arlene, was a bright, competitive, vivacious, intensely unhappy woman with what can only be described as a rather stunted maternal instinct. She was verbally and physically abusive, she disappeared for days at a time, and she eventually separated her children from their father by moving across the country and put them in harm's way with a terrifying stepfather. As the author puts it, toward the end of the book:
"Before I wrote this book, it was almost impossible for me to consider telling a story of my mother that was larger than her abuse and abandonment. It felt too much like letting her off the hook. You may be thinking, 'Wait a minute. Almost all of these stories are about abuse and abandonment!' I'll concede that — up to a point. But haven't I also presented my mother's actions in a larger context? Haven't I given possible reasons for her behavior?"
She certainly has. This earnest address to the reader is among the many narrative gambits Bernick employs. Her chapters vary in length and tone, most opening with well chosen epigraphs from a wide variety of sources. Some tell family stories, others present research and factual information on the zeitgeist of the 1970s vis-a-vis marriage, divorce, family and women's roles. Her mother's experience as a competitor in the Mrs. Minnesota competition of 1964 sheds a sparkling light on the latter.
The ethnographic makeup of Minnesota and the psychological toll of its wintry weather ("According to a 2018 report from Blue Cross Blue Shield of America, Minnesota has one of the highest rates of major depression in the country and Hawaii has the lowest") are discussed in detail. And, as is not uncommon in memoirs these days, there's a fair amount of ink devoted to how memory works, which is interesting, and to epigenetics, which I find less so, because (a) I don't really buy it, and (b) I am getting sick of hearing about it. Do we really need chromosomal mutation to explain intergenerational trauma?
There are newspaper articles and photographs from her mother's scrapbook, a couple of chapters devoted to Jewish jokes and Minnesota jokes, and a Waikiki Meatballs recipe that played a role in one of her parents' arguments.
Bernick has given this book everything she has, metaphorically and literally, and the result is lit up by its own necessity. "I often wonder," she writes, "why some people are able to 'bounce back' after adversity and some are not, and I think it has to do with storytelling. The stories that travel within us, that create our memories and identities, are malleable. The way we choose to tell these stories can determine the version of ourselves we take forward into the future."
Which is exactly why it was so important not to fictionalize — because this is the kind of truth that makes you free.
Marion Winik is a writer and professor in Baltimore.
By: Elisa Bernick.
Publisher: Indiana University Press, 246 pages, $22 paperback.
Event: Twin Cities Book Festival, Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Oct. 15.