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Book review: Feeling at home in Amberly

  • Ariella Cohen of Deerfield in her garden. Paul Franz

  • Ariella Cohen of Deerfield in her garden. Paul Franz

  • Ariella Cohen of Deerfield's book. Paul Franz

  • Ariella Cohen of Deerfield in her garden. Paul Franz



For The Recorder
Friday, July 01, 2016
BOOK REVIEW: “Repairing the Broken World: Ariella Cohen and “Sweet Breath of Memory”

Ariella Cohen of Deerfield has just produced her first novel. “Sweet Breath of Memory” weaves together the lives of a number of women of different ages. As the novel unfolds, both the characters and the reader learn about the gifts that storytelling and community offer us all.

Cate is a young widow who loses her financial and emotional moorings after her soldier husband’s death in Iraq. In the spring of 2010, she arrives in the small town of Amberley in western Massachusetts to enter a training program as a home-care aide.

Caregiving is not the career Cate pictured for herself. She has always wanted to write. She needs a job, however, and the training program is the only potential source of income on her horizon.

Almost as soon as she arrives in Amberley, Cate is drawn into the circle of busy, professional women who run the town. Sheila reigns over an Italian bakery and café and also serves as Amberley’s mayor. MaryLou is a gruff auto mechanic with a marshmallow interior.

Gaby, who owns the town’s diner, knows without asking exactly what everyone in town wants to eat. Elderly Beatrice has run the town’s flagship department store since World War II.

Cate also learns about a remarkable Amberley personality who died in 2008. Miriam lived and barely survived in the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, during the Holocaust. Decades earlier she, like Cate, came to Amberley seeking refuge and a new life.

As Cate begins to feel at home with Amberley and its residents and learns more about many remarkable lives, she slowly begins to heal emotionally — and learns to help others heal as well.

When I called Ariella Cohen to ask her about the book, we bonded as two New Jersey-born girls who live happily in Franklin County.

I asked how she ended up in Deerfield. She explained that she went to law school and worked for many years as a lawyer but decided to give up the round-the-clock schedule of contemporary law when her beloved sister began to need care.

Wanting more time to help her sister, she applied for jobs in the nonprofit sector and ended up working as the treasurer of the Five Colleges. This necessitated a move to western Massachusetts. When her sister eventually needed full-time care, Cohen quit her job to provide it.

She doesn’t regret that decision. “You don’t get back time with the people you love,” she told me calmly. “When we look back when we’re older, we’re not going to be looking at our business cards. We’re going to look at pictures of the people we love.”

Her sister has passed away, but Ariella Cohen still provides care for her mother. The newly-minted author explained to me that Cate’s caregiving job and the example of Cate’s employer, who spent many years caring for her own mother, are the only parts of “Sweet Breath of Memory” that are autobiographical.

“I think a lot of women, and it’s still overwhelmingly women, find themselves caring for parents and children and spouses,” Cohen said. “This is what we embrace and want to do, but it’s not the path you envisioned for yourself.”

I asked her how she developed her storyline. She informed me that she had always wanted to write but opted for something more financially secure first.

“Art was a hard thing to make a living at,” she noted ruefully. “I really admire writers who hit their stride in their 20s and 30s. I didn’t. I hadn’t made enough mistakes in life, which is what makes you a good writer. When I was exhausted and bleary-eyed from caregiving, I started writing.”

The Amberley stories, she explained, came from tales she used to tell her sister. The two had fallen in love with the English town of Amberley, which Cohen called “a beautiful, honey-colored stone village.” She transported its charm to New England in her imagination.

“This is a place where you wish you lived,” said Cohen of the Amberley she created. “It’s the sort of New England town that’s disappearing. It’s a little bit like Greenfield. It’s a little bit like Salem. ... It’s a bit of a lot of towns. That can-do New England spirit is definitely part of the book.”

“Of course, there’s an Italian grocery,” she joked, “because without an Italian grocery how could you live there?”

Over years the stories she told her sister wove themselves into the novel. “If you were to ask me how long this took, I couldn’t tell you,” Cohen remarked.

She included a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto in “Sweet Breath of Memory” because she had long been interested in this ghetto. Jews were crowded into a small section of Lodz in deplorable conditions to do factory work for Germany and its war machine.

As the war wound down, most of the residents who hadn’t died of cruelty, disease, or starvation were deported to concentration camps.

“Even though it was the second largest ghetto, it’s not one a lot of Americans know a lot about,” Cohen told me. “The challenge was to incorporate this into the story and not have it overwhelm the story.”

Lodz plays an important part in the Amberley saga. Cate is inspired by the spirit of Lodz survivor Miriam. As Cate and her friends learn, the most important theme of the journal Miriam left for posterity is the Jewish concept of tikkun ha-olam, which Cohen translates as “repair of the broken world.”

As Cate becomes enmeshed in Amberley and its tales of past and present, she sees that community, memory, and above all storytelling can help individuals begin to make the necessary repairs to the world about them.

I asked Ariella Cohen what she wanted readers to get out of “Sweet Breath of Memory.”

“I hope the book gives us an understanding of how interconnected we all are,” she replied, “and how minor decisions in our lives and the smallest chance (determine) how we effect tikkun ha-olam.

“Everything you do resonates outward. You never see where the ripples are going. It doesn’t take that much to make change. ... The smallest kindness really does ripple through time.”

“Sweet Breath of Memory” will be launched on Wednesday, July 6, at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Italian treats will be served! The book is also available at the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.