Review of By the Grace of God: A Tale of Love, Family, War and Survival from the Congo by Suruba Ibumando Georgette Wechsler with Howell Wechsler. New Horizons Press. 335 pp. $24.95.
It's a familiar experience to movie-goers. The actors convey a range of emotions, giving a performance that is inspiring, alive long after the lights have come on. But often such star power is not enough to elevate and ultimately rescue the film from succumbing to its major or even minor flaws. It's an ineffable sort of disappointment.
Suruba (or Georgette as she is more commonly called) Wechsler is an affecting star of her own memoir. Her dramatic story conveys both cinematically and personally that war is hell. Ms. Wechsler and her family were inadvertently caught up in the civil war that devastated Zaire, then called the Congo, in the early 1960s. An untold number of Congolese died, and others fled villages and small towns on foot in the hopes of keeping a step or two ahead of violent militias and government soldiers.
Ms. Wechsler and her family ran away from their home in the Congo interior and took to the road for several months. Although they were occasionally sheltered by extended family and a number of her father's acquaintances along the way, the five children who were accompanied (and very often protected) by Ms. Wechsler's step-mother and grandmother were mostly at the mercy of nature and strangers. It's a journey that Ms. Wechsler presents as both traumatic and picaresque. Her spare prose is subtly shaded with observations on politics, family dynamics and a young girl's poignant musings on growing up.
The heart and soul of Ms. Wechsler's narrative belong respectively to her older sister Josee and her indomitable father Suruba Benoit. The latter, the son of a village chief, was thrown out of the seminary for his open skepticism. A former military officer, he met Georgette and Josee's mother Therese when he was assigned to guard her in prison. She was incarcerated with her four-month-old daughter after asking authorities for a divorce from an abusive husband. Therese and Benoit's marriage ended, and Therese left and did not see her daughters for a decade. Josee stepped into the role of mother with both trepidation and grace, but in Georgette's eyes Josee's confidence never wavered.
Georgette's story is buoyed by a number of strong women. Her step-mother, Mama Apoline, keeps her family safe and together after her husband is presumed dead. When last seen by his family, Benoit was crossing a river under attack by sniper fire. He survives the war as does the rest of the family, only to then go through a number of minor domestic upheavals. Throughout the narrative Benoit is a steady, loving presence, encouraging his daughters in this patriarchal society as if they were sons. The girls persevere and earn university degrees. All the while Zaire is at the mercy of its unpredictable dictator Mobutu Seseko.
Georgette's first visit to the United States turns into a permanent stay. She works for the Zaire mission at the United Nations and meets Howell Wechsler, a young American Jew who has spent time in Zaire as a Peace Corps volunteer. Their Zairian connection eventually gives way to a Jewish one. Like her war-time journey, Georgette and Howell's spiritual pilgrimage begins without a particular destination in mind, yet it becomes a necessary and even urgent trip. With Georgette's encouragement, Howell slowly embraces his Judaism, coming to realize that he wants to bring up the couple's two children as Jews. A lapsed Catholic, Georgette is comfortable with the idea, and by the time her children formally convert to Judaism, she is also well on her way to becoming a Jew herself.
By the Grace of God is a story replete with all of the prerequisite uniqueness and drama. But it falls short. Ms. Wechsler is too superficial about her attraction and subsequent acceptance of Judaism. Her book is only the outline of a distinctive memoir, raising more curiosity than it satisfies.