Memoir builds poetic stories from old photos

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2012 - 2:58 PM

BOOK REVIEW Judith Kitchen riffs on old photographs, diaries and letters in constructing this alternative history of her ancestors' lives.

"Half in Shade: Family, Photography and Fate" by Judith Kitchen

On a lazy weekend, people of a certain age will eventually find themselves rifling through old family photographs -- formal portraits of our great-grandparents, maybe a few snapshots of our fathers when they were skinny schoolboys. We didn't ask about the pictures then, not when we still could. So we make up stories to fill the details not captured by the camera.

Writer Judith Kitchen has taken this matter a step further. She wrote an entire book based on her German-American family's 20th-century snapshots, plus the handful of diaries, postcards and letters they left behind.

"Half in Shade: Family, Photography and Fate" (Coffee House Press, 203 pages, $16) is breezy and easy to digest, perfect reading for a Saturday afternoon. I read the book over the course of a single weekend. Thanks to the short chapters, loaded up with mysterious Kitchen family photographs, I could tackle the book in small bites (in between naps and mealtimes). All along, Kitchen's dreamy prose kept my mind swimming with memories and half-truths based on faded images of my own deceased grandparents and father.

Her book will delight anyone who loves their boxfuls and albums of family photographs. But here's the twist: Kitchen herself professes to have little interest in the medium. "I have never owned a camera and I never snap photographs, except reluctantly when asked by others," she begins.

How strange, then, that she often writes from the perspective of the photographer. Twice she imagines her young mother happily snapping the silly 1920s- and '30s-era snapshots she finds.

The reader can feel as though she is intruding, especially when Kitchen reveals some deeply personal misgivings about the mother we meet in these pictures. These passages, in fact, are tinged with harshness, something you don't find in the rest of the book.

For example, Kitchen writes an extended fantasy regarding her mother's 1930 trip to Europe. A young, unmarried schoolteacher with a taste for propriety, the mother had paid her own way and recorded her experiences via camera and travelogue. Instead of being impressed by her mother's resourcefulness, however, Kitchen dwells on her seriousness. She even criticizes her mother's sensible footwear.

On the other hand, Kitchen has created plenty of beautiful, generous snippets based on photos of her grandparents, her father, even a few for her mother. Plus, Kitchen places herself among these ancestors by closing each chapter with brief essays (almost prose poems) dealing with her own mortality. Specifically, Kitchen has both a lung disease and breast cancer. Thanks to their urgency, these passages -- these self-portraits, left to posterity -- are the strongest in the book.

Another standout: the fragments of manuscripts left behind by Kitchen's father. One story has him remembering a scary episode involving American schoolchildren playing in World War I-era practice trenches.

Pieced together, these memories and daydreams make for an impressionistic and pleasurable book.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.

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Comments • Kate Parry

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