In her new graphic memoir, the prolific author and artist Marisabina Russo exceeds expectations of the popular genre. Every page brings fresh insights into her complicated family with humor, irony, and ambivalent love. Although the noise level she alludes to in the title will be instantly familiar to any child or grandchild of immigrants, there are no clichés here.
Russo offers a reminder of the differences in each individual experience of the Holocaust, as well as the long-reaching consequences of trauma, in her latest work. Marisabina lives with her Jewish refugee mother, a Catholic convert, in Queens, New York. Her Italian father is absent, and two older half-brothers serve as a reminder of the war years when their own father was murdered by the Nazis. Marisabina’s passage from childhood to adolescence is trying, as she struggles with parental expectations and navigates the hazards of school and social acceptance.
As with many children, Marisabina’s particular environment is both normal and utterly frustrating, largely controlled by adults, who are themselves not always in control. Yet, as she gradually reveals her family’s past, readers become aware of the dissonance between the ideals of postwar America and the reality of her fractured life. She does not express self-pity, only the bewildered reactions of a sensitive child as she comes to terms with her own identity.
Every panel of this memoir answers the question posed in its title. When her story begins, Marisabina is a deeply religious little girl, unhappily aware that her family sees her mother’s conversion as a betrayal. Her grandmother and aunt have survived Auschwitz; their ordeal is never explained, so her aunt’s number tattoo remains a strangely disembodied symbol.
Family conversations in Yiddish are glossed with English captions, allowing the chaotic nature of family discussions to emerge naturally. The author captures the innocence of her former self, admitting, “Despite the fact that my relatives spoke Yiddish, ate herring, and drank seltzer, it never occurred to me that I might actually be Jewish.” Yiddish shows up in Marisabina’s split consciousness when she contemplates becoming a nun to escape the “fermisht tummel” of her noisy family.
Subtly alternating between childhood and adult perspectives, Russo creates a dialogue between Marisabina and the reader. Illustrations in pastel and bright colors portray characters in realistic detail while preserving some of a child’s naïve interpretation of the adult world. Black-and-white is used for flashback scenes and simulated photos. By the end of the book, nothing is fully resolved, but everything has gained clarity. Visiting the Museum of Modern Art, Marisabina viscerally identifies with Matisse’s painting The Red Studio,foreshadowing her own professional future. Religiously, there are many unanswered questions. Attending a family seder for the first time, this Catholic-Jewish girl experiences a spiritual epiphany, as all the participants “moved in graceful syncopation.” At the same time, she excludes herself from the collective memories they share. Russo’s graphic memoir at least partly restores those memories to herself, while also making them available to fortunate readers.
This highly recommended graphic memoirincludes a thoughtful epilogue and a section of family photos.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.