How I Came Into My Inheritance: And Other True Stories

by Dorothy Gallagher

Published by Random House

187 pages, 2001

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Family Meeting

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson


In this collection of short non-fiction, Dorothy Gallagher explores the history of her family -- from their immigration to America to their Communist sympathies to their small everyday hurts -- and the manner in which this history has shaped her own life. Gallagher's journalistic approach to prose, combined with a wryly humorous and sympathetic demeanor allows her to compile a rich and entertaining generational biography without ever drifting into sentimentality.

Though she's written for a pulp magazine and is the author of two journalistic non-fiction works, How I Came Into My Inheritance is Gallagher's first collection of memoirs. The pieces are not chronologically ordered, but rather focus on specific moments in the lives of her parents, aunts, uncles and sometimes the author herself. In this fashion, we are taken from a small town in the Ukraine to the lower East side of New York and back again. We are transported from the mass executions in Odessa to the beginning of Stalin's reign in Russia to the McCarthy era in the USA to present day. And while these are broad cultural and historical jumps, the reader never feels manipulated or floundering; Gallagher quickly establishes herself as a trustworthy narrator and I was more than willing to go along with her on this seamless ride.

How I Came Into My Inheritance details Gallagher's maternal family. When we first meet her mother, Bella, she is advanced in years and has taken to inexplicably falling down. This is both a physical and an emotional ailment; Bella and her husband, Gallagher's father Rosen, are living in a run-down house, close to poverty. It is their inability to retain independence that propels Gallagher's familial examination. As such, we relive Bella and Rosen's meeting; Bella's sisters' failed romantic relationships; the family's segmented immigration; journeys back to the Ukraine taken by suddenly sentimental old men and women, only to be met with disappointment. And, as Gallagher's relatives age, they begin to reveal themselves, divulging family secrets and unknown pasts. In this way, Gallagher lets us into a family in a way that is highly volatile and highly personal, creating a deeply satisfying experience for the reader.

Rachile was barely thirty when she and Victor got back to America. Her sisters and brothers were having children. Oscar had a little girl; Joe had one too. Lily, that mean bitch -- yes, bitch -- was barren, which showed there was at least some justice in the world; Bella had had a miscarriage, but was trying again.

Rachile loved Frieda, hated Lily. Sometimes she loved Bella, sometimes hated her; not hated, really. Personally, I think she worshipped her but was kept at a distance. Bella was Rachile's touchstone. Role model, as they say these days.

"You know, Dotsicle," Rachile said to me once. "Everyone admired your mother. She had a wonderful mind, not just clever."

Gallagher avoids falling into the stereotypical family memoir. Not only is her family unusual -- there have not been many Ukrainian-immigrant-Communist-Jewish casts that have managed to remain interesting as well as sympathetic -- but the voice Gallagher employs is fresh and entertaining. By turns ironic, sarcastic and gentle, she manages to retain a realistic tone and subsequently we, the readers, feel drawn into the narrative. Gallagher's voice is honest and creates a sense of immediacy; I felt as though I were having an intimate conversation with her.

However, Gallagher comments on social and economic issues as well as family matters. She discusses the neighborhoods her family has lived in -- typically the lower-income communities they could afford -- without ever creating a sense of pity. She illustrates the secretive nature essential to Communists in the 1950s and 60s without falling into a preaching tone. She even describes a murder without becoming sensational. This understated quality reaffirms Gallagher's intention to accurately and unblinkingly portray her family: their joys as well as their downfalls.

Of course, at the moment the shutter snaps, they haven't a clue how lucky they are, how much history they will be spared. They are going to America, where my grandfather, clever man, sent his older children before the war; those three -- Lily, Oscar and Bella -- are absent from the photo, as is the eldest of the children, Rifka. She's the aunt who stayed behind with her husband and child. Why she stayed, I can't imagine. She'd already been raped during a pogrom. In 1942, history -- which, as I was always instructed, consists of vast, inexorable forces, always progressive in tendency -- will find her in Odessa, where she and her husband will be killed in the ghetto, along with fifty thousand other Jews. By Romanians, not Germans -- if it matters.

How I Came Into My Inheritance is a smart, crisp book of memoirs that somehow still manages to incorporate the tone of a close friend's confession. Gallagher gracefully lets us in to meet her family and allows us to see the human beauty there. | April 2001


Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.