The Heirs begins in an emergency-room with the protagonist Eleanor trying to sort out Rose, her elderly mother’s reversion to expressive Polish, after falling and breaking her hip, shouting at a young newly arrived Eastern European technician in the ambulance, calling her a “Nazi bitch.” This confuses Eleanor. Rose Ritter has not spoken a word of Polish in more than 50 years. She resolutely refuses to discuss anything about her life before America. And now this.
Eleanor tries for years to learn more about her parent’s lives during the war. Her father passes away with his secrets, and her mother consistently rewards her with smiles while changing the subject. Eleanor teaches French at a local college, her children are ages 12 and 7. Her marriage is in a crisis, as her workaholic husband leaves all the responsibilities to her. She barely manages before her mother’s fall and after that, her balancing act begins to crumble.
Eleanor forges a friendship with a Polish immigrant couple at her son’s soccer game. Their son is the best athlete on the team; Eleanor’s son is the worst. She wants to know if their parents and grandparents were guilty of sending her parents and grandparents to the camps during WWII. She tells her of her plans for her reluctant daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, wanting them to know of her Jewish heritage. When the Polish couple stops coming to soccer games, Eleanor feels responsible, only to learn why the Polish family moved to Houston. Slowly, Eleanor begins to mature and listen to the messages her mother has wanted to tell her for many years.
The author’s skill at threading themes throughout the story and creating multi-layered characters is remarkable. The Heirs is a well-researched novel that will appeal to Holocaust/WWII historical enthusiasts. It vividly lays bare the injustice of inherited guilt and the perils of holding the present responsible for our past.