One of the reasons I read is to learn about other people’s experiences and perspectives; I particularly enjoy reading about other cultures and the histories that created them. We can’t be separated from our history. That point is made very clear by Eliana Tobias in her novel When We Return, in which historical conflicts on different continents collide and intersect.
The two main characters are Otilia Perez and Jerry Gold, who meet and form an alliance strengthened by the similarities in their family histories of national oppression and trauma. Both lost family members because of violence at the hands of the governments they trusted to protect them. Otilia was present in Peru during the violent years of Albert Fujimori’s presidency and the Shining Path Communist guerilla group’s terrorist activities. She was forced to leave her homeland due to threats of physical harm. In the process of fleeing for safety, she was separated from her husband and son. Additionally, her brother subsequently stole the family property that was rightly hers—she lost everything. Otilia eventually lands in California and attempts to rebuild her life, while continuing her search for her family.
Jerry is the son of a Jew who was forced to leave his home in Czechoslovakia during Hitler’s regime. Jerry’s father, Milan, lost most of his family and all of their possessions in the Holocaust. While Milan eventually made a new home and created a family in the United States, he was forever traumatized by the events of his youth. Jerry is left to make his own peace with his father’s story years after his death.
For both Otilia and Jerry, the foundational question is whether governments that cause harm have a responsibility to make reparation for damage they’ve caused. Individual reparations were never made after the Holocaust, but Germany has made efforts to accept their culpability and to memorialize those who died. In Peru, efforts have been made to memorialize those who suffered. However, its emphasis is on providing funds for public projects, leaving citizens no recompense.
This is not enough for Otilia. She says at one point, “… when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission assigned responsibility for the conflict, they found that there was a great deal of lawlessness on the part of the government,” but she says, the government continues to stonewall citizens who apply for compensation. Ultimately, she realizes that determining truth and assigning blame are complex.
In the end, healing comes from somewhere other than reparations. While the reader is left with an unanswered question about a government’s obligation to repay its citizens, we understand more clearly what’s at stake for those who lose everything, sometimes even their lives, because of corrupt or malignant regimes.
In When We Return, I learned about recent historical events in Peru I hadn’t known about before. I would like to have been provided more factual context about those years, as I was sometimes unclear on which parties were evil and which were not. Much has been known and discussed about the Holocaust, so Jerry’s story was better understood. Aside from occasional confusion about the sequence of events and the people involved, I came away from the book with a better understanding of twentieth century conflict in Peru and was entertained in the process.