Book Reviewed: Elisabeth – Claire A. Nivola, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997
I am writing today about one of my favorite books. By saying that, I am giving it an award in a category too broad to exist. It is at the top of my list in several categories: children’s books, illustrated books, Jewish children’s books, doll books, books with girls and women as central characters. It is based on a true story, adding a category of historically themed illustrated books. Both the text and pictures are by acclaimed artist and writer Claire A. Nivola, author and illustrator of Orani: My Father’s Village, and illustrator of Emma’s Poem and the soon to be published The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art.
Elisabeth is the story of a Jewish child, based on the author’s mother Ruth, growing up in Germany as the country succumbs to the murderous rule of the Nazis. Elisabeth is the name of her doll, portrayed as incredibly life-like—almost uncannily so. They share everything together in a comfortable home full of the details of their particular life: Persian carpets, a giant turtle brought from Africa, a carved wooden chair on which they sit together as the book opens. The inner life of her childhood is radically disrupted as the Nazis, along with the German people, distort who she is: “Then everything changed. In school, the teacher no longer saw my hand when I raised it in class. ‘Jew,’ I was called.”
There are various allusions to suffering and mortality. The girl notes that the family’s turtle “had lived a long time,” a part of their home which “I liked to believe – would live forever.” Their dog, Fifi, attacks Elisabeth, and “dragged her dancing about the room.” The doll, which is the size of a real baby, looks indistinguishable from an injured person. The girl’s father, a doctor with an office in their home, solemnly bandages Elisabeth’s arm. Ultimately, he can only save his family by fleeing their home and we see them board a long train with many cars, dwarfing the much smaller people on the platform. Elisabeth has to be left behind.
The real triumph of the book lies in its refusal to indulge in sentimentality. The girl grows up and moves on in Italy, Paris, and finally, America: “We settled near the seashore in a town far across the ocean from the continent where I had lived as a child with Elisabeth.” Nivola’s words are carefully chosen, weaving an intricate message. Her new life is so distant from her previous one that a vast ocean, painted in blue lines and pointillist dots, becomes a symbol of that distance. This is a life of freedom, a life with a new language and children born in a new world, but also a life without Elisabeth, stated without complaint. When the narrator, now a grown woman, goes to buy a doll for her daughter, she wanders into an antique shop full of lifeless objects and one large doll leaning against a table clock.
Picking the doll up, she notices the teeth mark left by her family’s dog back in Germany. Is this reunion improbable? Perhaps, although Nivola’s mother has related it to her. The author also undercuts the potential mawkishness of the scene by depicting the shop owner not as a kindly participant, but as a stern and harsh male figure, as authoritarian as those from her previous life. He cautions her, “You mustn’t touch the object.” But Elisabeth is not an object, as the woman holds her in her arms while handing money, a kind of ransom, to the frowning owner.
Nivola’s pictures have several distinctive ingredients. The smaller figures recall primitive art, while the full portraits have a late Medieval or Renaissance quality. (The portrait of the girl seated with her doll seems an obvious allusion to a Madonna and Child.) Many of the faces are sad, including those of father and daughter, with their convincing family likeness, frowning at the omen of the doll’s injury. There are half-smiles on the woman’s face as she buys Elisabeth back in the store, and as she becomes a grandmother sharing the doll again. The delicacy of small objects with bright touches of color remind the reader of an illuminated manuscript.
An epigraph to the book tells us:
“This is my mother’s story.
She wanted it told for all
the children of the world
who have had to leave what
they love behind.”
So in addition to her message about antisemitism and the terrors of the Holocaust, Nivola makes it clear that children are still subjected to the ruthless decisions of those in power. Even in the security of her new life in America, the coldness of the owner of the antique store serves as a reminder that not all adults care about children’s well-being. The last full page picture captures the strength of family and of women, with the realistically aged grandmother holding her granddaughter on her lap, along with the doll, Elisabeth, who looks as human as the next generation which she may not live to see.
It is hard to think of who would not be an appropriate audience for this beautiful book. It can serve as a point of contact for introducing and sharing so many aspects of life with your child, student, or any young reader: history, the perils of abusive power and of prejudice, and the reassuring consolations of family.
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