Heidi McCrary’s first novel, Chasing North Star, is a heart-rending portrayal of her experiences growing up in a family headed by a mother suffering the effects of generational neglect, abuse, and mental illness. McCrary begins the story in 2005 with her own family’s trip to New York City in search of her mother’s name on the rolls at Ellis Island. With a loving husband and two young sons, McCrary decides it is important for her children to know more about their grandmother, a woman she herself had finally begun to understand.
Jumping back and forth between her own childhood (written in present tense) and then to life as her mother knew it growing up in Nazi Germany (written in past tense), McCrary capably captures the essence of the orphan who could never share much about herself with her children, the orphan who named her daughter by putting together parts of her two best friends’ names (HeidiMari).
Didi (Heidi’s mother) shared bits and pieces of her life in a small journal found at a time that allowed Heidi to conclude, “…as I’ve grown older, I have come to understand the obstacles that my mother faced–the abuse she endured as a child, and the mental and physical challenges that she struggled with on a daily basis.” The result is this beautiful novel where Heidi is able to come to terms with her childhood and forgive her mother.
This book reminds us of the redemptive powers that exist for children growing up in homes with unspeakable challenges. Heidi and her siblings managed to protect one another, take part in typical childhood expeditions such as scrambling along the tracks of the North Star train, and support each other over years of incredible challenges in their household. Heidi wrote, “My mother, quite unintentionally, taught me the importance of embracing life and everything that goes along with it. I understand our father did the best he could trying to protect his children from the woman he adored but couldn’t save.”
This is a powerful read for those whose childhoods may have been stunted by parents who never seemed to grasp the sort of happiness they longed for, or whose parents were unable to shake generational trauma such as mental illness, unable to control the effects.
In the end, time keeps moving forward, and the ferry will depart Ellis Island. McCrary inhales the earthy fragrance of forgiveness that “allows her to move on without bitterness and anger.” It has been said that forgiveness is the gift one gives to oneself, and this author brings the reader full circle right along with her in this skillfully written novel.