I always wondered how my Italian grandparents entered the U.S. through New York City but ended up settling upstate in the small city of Amsterdam. Decades later touring Ellis Island, the guide talked about how oftentimes immigrants, not speaking English, ended up far from their intended destination. She mentioned Italians who wanted to go to Amsterdam Avenue in New York City instead were directed to trains going upstate. Finally I had an answer!
I thought about my relatives while reading the opening of Miguel Bonnefoy’s Heritage, a beautifully told novel that follows many generations of one family. Lazare Londoner’s father left France with little money and a vine stock which he hoped to plant in California to start a vineyard. The Panama Canal had not yet opened, so he boarded a ship that had to go around South America. But he became ill and the ship’s captain, fearing an outbreak of typhoid fever, left the man behind. That’s how Lazare Londoner’s father, and those who came after him, stayed in Chile, first in Valparaíso, and eventually in Santiago. He planted that vine and began a successful wine business. After becoming accustomed to the reversal of seasons, he would tell others, “Chile has always reminded me of California.”
Even though Lazare was born in Chile, he was raised speaking French and felt a connection with his father’s country. So when World War I broke out in Europe, he, along with his two brothers, Robert and Charles, decided to go and fight for France. That romantic notion soon collides with the reality of war. Lazare would be seriously injured while his brothers would be killed. Lazare returns to Chile to face his sorrowful mother and rebuild his life. He marries a French woman, Thérèse, who constructs a beautiful garden and aviary, her birds becoming like members of the family.
But it’s Lazare and Thérèse’s daughter, Margot, who becomes one of the most fascinating characters in the book. Rather than staying grounded, Margot looks to the skies and becomes an aviator. Her bravery and tenacity as she sticks to her plan are both terrifying and inspiring.
This family saga is set against the political changes that roil the world, not only in Europe, but in South America and, in particular, Chile. Margot’s son, Ilario Da, suffers the most during the revolution that rocks his country. He ends up being captured and tortured.
Bonnefoy packs passion, poetry, suffering, and salvation into a mere 147 pages. Heritage, translated by Emily Boyce, is a story of a family, trying to preserve its culture and traditions with a world spinning wildly out of control.
Translated by Emily Boyce
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