The Muralist, B. A. Shapiro, author; Xe Sands, narrator.
In 1939, the reader is introduced to a brave young woman who when faced with the horrors that were facing her family became desperate in her attempt to save them. Alizee Benoit, an artist, is living in the United States and working for the WPA, The Works Project Administration, a program that is part of The New Deal that is designed to put people back to work, even artists and writers. Her parents are dead, but her siblings and extended family are all living in France. With the rise of Hitler they are facing great danger. They are trying to obtain visas to immigrate to America and Alizee has been solicited to try to help them. She is an American citizen. Through her work painting murals, she has had the opportunity to meet Eleanor Roosevelt and has asked for her help in obtaining visas for her family.
Alizee wants to use her art to influence the political situation and to illustrate the plight of the Jews. Some in the government are actively working against the emigration of Jews to America, trying to prevent or slow the issuance of visas for them. Eleanor is in favor of helping the Jews, as was Lyndon Johnson. Others in opposition to saving them are Breckinridge Long, Joseph Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh. The President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was of a mind to protect his election rather than to aid the Jews. Therefore, he is unwilling to do anything to rattle his constituents. They do not want war, they do not want the Jews, and he will not help Europe in its effort to defeat Hitler’s rise to power and jeopardize his political future. He waited until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to respond.
In 2015, Danielle, Alizee’s niece, discovers pieces of a mural, that she believes were her aunt’s, behind some paintings in a collection of art that has been sent to her to be identified and verified for auction. She believes that these pieces of a mural might have been painted by her Aunt Alizee who has been missing since 1940. Her efforts to prove this are thwarted as her boss believes they are Mark Rothko’s work and that her attempts to prove they are Alizee’s are useless and unwarranted. Her aunt worked for the WPA together with artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and Lee Krasner, before they achieved fame. It was a time when Picasso was just beginning to exhibit his abstract art and he was not appreciated fully. She believes her aunt’s art has been lost. Danielle begins to research everything she can find to figure out what happened to her aunt, in spite of her instructions to abandon her investigation.
Slowly, as the story bounces, sometimes uncomfortably, between 1939 and 2015, the heinous history of Hitler is revealed. It is tastefully done and will not alarm the reader as most of the information is already well known; the situation at home and abroad is not welcoming to Jews. The story is more interesting when it takes place in 1939 than in 2015, as Danielle searches for clues to her aunt’s final whereabouts. As the mystery unfolds, there is a surprising, unexpected conclusion. Woefully naïve, and emotionally unstable in some way, Alizee was not prepared for the danger she would face or for the power of her enemies. When she received letters from her relatives describing the dire situation they faced, she became unraveled and made foolish decisions. She believed in her cause but was up against a bureaucracy that was far more powerful and able than she was. Is this story plausible? Perhaps not, but for me, Alizee represents the brave souls who tried to effect change and save lives during those terrible days leading up to and including the Holocaust, and Danielle represents the need today to keep the memory alive so that it won’t happen again and so that we can be reminded of the need for the Jews to have a homeland in which to feel safe and welcome.
The history is interesting and accurate, but I found the story to be not as engaging as I would have liked since no major new idea was presented. Many people suffered in Europe and many people in many countries tried in vain to save their families. Most faced opposition from all avenues of escape. Some of the details in the book were nostalgic, like references to a Betty Crocker calendar. Since the book doesn’t dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust, it is not a difficult read in that sense, however, reliving the horrors, even on the fringes, could be difficult for Jews, especially those that were directly affected with family loss and property loss.
In conclusion, the book’s plot seemed naïve and not very credible. The book did raise a question for me, however. Is the sacrifice of one life to save many, an honorable effort? Is it a crime of conscience? If that person is perceived as an enemy does the verdict change? It is a philosophical problem that has long been debated. Like the ethical dilemma of The Trolley Problem, whom do you save and whom do you sacrifice is difficult to answer?
I listened to an audio and found the narrator became too involved with her
presentation, speaking in a glib tone at times, sometimes staccato and sometimes in too conversational a tone, at others her voice was too soft and melancholy, and at other times the sing song nature of her tone and presentation was distracting and hard to follow. She simply did not enhance the book, but rather seemed to be presenting herself more than the story. She over indulged herself in her interpretation. I have listened to other books narrated by her and have to admit that I was pleased with only one of the narrations. I have a print copy of this book, but I didn’t find the tale compelling enough to plow through it again.
In light of the situation today in the Middle East and an administration hesitant to enter the fray with a forceful response, one can only hope there will not be a catastrophe that forces this President’s hand. Regarding Syrian immigrants, the book has jumped to the forefront and is very current in its message about allowing immigrants into the country. The Syrians are fleeing in massive numbers and countries are fearful of accepting them since some will be terrorists bent on death and destruction. How does one determine who is righteous and who is not? However, there is no moral equivalent between the Jewish immigrants and the Syrian immigrants. Jews were trying to escape the people who were trying to kill them. They had not waged war against anyone. The Syrians are Muslims, and some Islamic extremists have waged war against the world, and the United States. It is not easy to know which Syrian Muslim is the enemy and which is not. It is a conundrum because they also do not seem interested in becoming part of our Democracy, but rather, some seem to want to create a Theocracy ruled by Islamic laws.