Monday, January 29, 2018

Stolen Secrets by L.B. Schulman

Livvy's mother, Gretchen has dragged her across the continental United States from Vermont to a new life in San Francisco. Livvy leaves behind her home with its beautiful backyard in Vermont, her friends that she's known since preschool and Sean, her first boyfriend. Her mother, a recovering alcoholic leaves behind her AA sponsor, Tom.

However it's soon apparent things are not what they seem. A friend texts Livvy to tell her that a help-wanted sign has been posted at her mother's old job, Gourmet City where she supposedly was laid off.  Her mother also seems to know her way around San Francisco quite well and she knows exactly which bus Livvy needs to take to get to her new school. Then on Livvy's first day of school, she watches from their apartment window as her mother. supposedly on her way to a job interview, scraps the resumes Livvy's printed out for her job interview, tossing them into the garbage bin.

Although she attempts to follow her mother, Livvy soon loses her in the streets of San Francisco and is forced to rush to school. On her first day at Grant High, Livvy meets Franklin D. Schiller, who introduces himself in their Algebra 2 class. It turns out Franklin D, as he likes to be called is also in Livvy's International Debate class. Franklin D. decides he likes Livvy and sets out to try to win her over.

After school Livvy decides to check out 2846 Fillmore, the address she found on a sticky note, believing this to be the location of her mother's interview. Livvy discovers the address is not a business but a yellow Victorian house, occupied by an elderly lady. Her mother is there but soon leaves. Puzzled over her mother's prescence at the house, Livvy goes to the front porch and meets the elderly woman.She tells the woman that she saw her mother at the house. This leads the woman to remark that Livvy looks like her father, Lee Newman but not like her mother Gretchen  and introduces herself as Adelle Pfeiffer. She invites Livvy in for tea and tells her that she has hired Gretchen to do odd jobs. Confused by Gretchen's strange answers and random statements, Livvy eventually runs out of the house.

Back in their apartment, Livvy confronts her mother over the lies and tells her she met her grandmother whom she thought was dead. Her mother admits that Adelle is her mother, telling her that she moved to San Francisco because she was afraid she would be cut out of her mother's will if she didn't help care for her. Her mother's lawyer has arranged for Gretchen and Livvy to be paid a stipend and living expenses. Another caregiver, Vicki has been hired to work at night. Gretchen warns her daughter not to get involved with her grandmother who has a cruel streak. However, Livvy wants to get to know Adelle on her own terms.

At school Franklin D. continues to pursue Livvy inviting her to join him at lunch, but she declines giving the false excuse of having a prom planning meeting. Nevertheless Franklin D. remains persistent, even when Livvy provides numerous excuses and when she lies to him after Sean dumps her by text. Finally she relents and begins eating with Franklin D. and his eclectic friends.

Livvy's mother refuses to tell her much about her grandmother or why she stopped visiting her when she was in college. Feeling guilty about staying away, Livvy decides to visit her one day. She notices a mezuzah, an ornamental box to hold a copy of verses from the Torah, on the door frame. This makes Livvy wonder if her grandmother is Jewish? On this visit Adelle speaks a few words of German and mumbles about not being able to escape. When Livvy returns to her apartment, she discovers her mother has begun drinking again. Gretchen tells Livvy that caring for her mother whom she has a poor relationship with has triggered her relapse and she promises to call Tom. However, Livvy doesn't trust her mother and decides she will follow up with Tom on her own.

Livvy's time with her grandmother begins to raise more questions than answers. Her oma talks about journals, being a writer, about roll call and camp, being called Lazy Lillian by a sister she doesn't have. More random statements are made by Adelle including mentioning a place called Belsen, escaping on the last train and warnings to hide the jewelry. Livvy decides to search Belsen on her phone and discovers that Bergen-Belsen, was a women's concentration camp where Anne Frank and her sister Margaret died of typhus. The mystery about her grandmother begins to deepen.

At this time, Livvy's mother goes into crisis, having a serious alcoholic relapse that leads to her arrest and jailing for driving while impaired.  Tom travels to San Francisco and he and Gretchen tell Livvy that her mother will be returning to Vermont to do another session of rehab at Evergreen. Meanwhile Livvy is allowed to stay with her elderly grandmother, offering her the perfect chance to try to solve the mystery of her grandmother's past. With the help of Franklin D. who becomes more than just a friend, Livvy uncovers is a shocking past and a family secret that might explain her mother's serious problems but which also offers the possibility of forgiveness, recovery and redemption.


Schulman's Stolen Secrets takes the tragic story of Anne Frank and imagines a fictional account of one woman's life as it intersects with Anne's. While Schulman was careful to craft a story  that "didn't invent a 'new' Anne Frank" her novel does include a fictional account of Anne's experience at Bergen Belsen. The novel, which  explores the issues of Alzheimers and alcoholism, also uses these illnesses as a means of driving the plot. Livvy's grandmother, Adelle Friedman has Alzheimers which allows Schulman to develop the mystery of her past.  Adelle's fragmented memories are mixed up between the truth of her identity and the identity she assumed at the end of the war but Livvy doesn't know this.  By having Adelle suffer from Alzheimers, Schulman sets this character up as an unreliable narrator; her random statements to Livvy seem to suggest one thing, as do Adelle's short one or two page narratives in italics inserted between chapters. These short narratives tell of her time at Bergen-Belsen but they are vague enough to suggest to the reader the very opposite of what really happened. Eventually Livvy uncovers the unsettling truth.

Livvy's mother's alcoholism and her relapse set the stage for Livvy being left on her own and therefore being able, with the help of her new friend Franklin D. to investigate unhindered her grandmother's past. This also allows Livvy's friendship with Franklin D. to blossom.

Bergen-Belsen at the time the camp was liberated.
Stolen Secrets is populated by a quartet of strong, well developed characters, the most appealing of which has to be Franklin D. Shiller. Franklin D. is eccentric, caring, funny. Part of what makes this character so appealing is that he is part of a warm family and has caring, engaged parents - very unusual for young adult fiction. Franklin D. serves to provide some mild comic relief in what would otherwise be a dark novel.

In complete contrast is Livvy's dysfunctional family; her parents are divorced with her father having run off with another woman to Australia (conveniently putting him out of the picture) and her alcoholic mother who has been sober for the past five years until her recent relapse. As is typical of alcoholic families, Livvy is forced to be the parent and care for her mother both physically and emotionally. This sets Livvy up as a sixteen-year-old, mature far beyond her years. Livvy is unusual also in that she loves facts and is gifted with a prodigious memory.

Just as her mother undergoes a journey of recovery in the novel, Livvy too experiences her own journey. With a mother who is very needy, Livvy hopes to establish a different relationship with the grandmother she believed to be dead. She's hoping her oma will be a heroine for her and quickly rushes to fit her into that identity. However, when Livvy discovers the truth about her grandmother's past, she feels angry and betrayed. She refuses to visit her oma's bedside. "Why should Oma have family at her beside, stroking her hand, encouraging her to live? The Holocaust victims hadn't died with such love and care." 

But Livvy doesn't abandon her grandmother as her mother did. Instead of judging her grandmother "for her part in crimes against countless innocent people" Livvy decides to see her "as she had been, a girl around my age, who'd sold her soul to believe in a world of Hitler's creation-- one that promised jobs, solutions to economic problems, and a shiny new nation. A girl who'd ruined many lives, including her own." Livvy decides  "So in the end, I decided to accept Oma solely for who she was to me -- my grandmother. I was her last hope for absolution, the only person who could forgive her when she couldn't even forgive herself."  Livvy sitting by her dyig oma's bedside considers, "I weighed the facts one last time. My grandmother had made some horrific choices. But the reality was, I loved her in spite of it. Lifting her papery hand in mine, I bent down and kissed her cheek."

 Stolen Secrets is a very different novel that tackles many issues and yet works remarkably well. Well written, this novel is highly recommended.

Book Details:

Stolen Secrets by L.B. Schulman
Honesdale, Pennsylvannia: Boyds Mills Press   2017
302 pp.

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