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Ruth Rotkowitz

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ESCAPING THE WHALE

You can run but you can’t hide. This old adage does not apply exclusively to running from an external threat. As the protagonist of the novel ESCAPING THE WHALE discovers, running from internal threats is even more problematic.

 

The novel’s main character, Marcia, has a lot she yearns to escape. The daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, she has grown up absorbing the terrors and fears embodied in her family’s experiences in Europe. Her legacy of inherited trauma fills every aspect of her life, from the crackers and mints she hoards in her desk drawer at work ‘just in case’ to her fear of getting into an elevator before checking every corner of it. The book takes place in spring and summer of 1980 when the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran is major news. Concern for the hostages and alarm over the constant stream of news reports about it permeate the atmosphere and Marcia’s already fragile sense of safety is gradually being eroded. As a 28-year old guidance counselor specializing in handling the pregnant students at a large urban high school in Brooklyn, New York, she forces herself to keep it together in order to do her job advocating for her charges. She also does her best to present as “normal” to colleagues at the school and to her boyfriend, whom everyone considers a perfect catch yet who fills her with confusion and discomfort. In addition, she has her family and their expectations to contend with. 

What she feels she can never reveal to anyone are the panic attacks and delusions that plague her. Convinced there are rodents scurrying about in her closet, ready to pounce and do her harm, she suffers in silence. If she confessed this to anyone, what would they think of her? “How could she ever explain the way she was?” she wonders. Imagining sharks and other creatures of the deep converging on land and attacking humans, courting danger by wandering the Brooklyn streets late at night, seeing body parts in inanimate  objects – all these symptoms of inherited trauma rule her life. Every frightening event brings her mind back to stories she has heard of tortures and persecutions during the war. She cannot seem to rid herself of these tormenting thoughts.

At one low point, Marcia wails, “Why hadn’t something been invented to squeeze horrifying thoughts out of one’s mind, like a vise that could siphon out the undesirable imaginings?” 

That is her wish. Unfortunately, she discovers that there is no such thing, no easy out. A series of crises at work and in the news push her closer and closer to a breakdown, and she can no longer continue leading her double life. Determined to escape before she explodes, she flees to a beach resort in Mexico, convinced that in a new locale, away from her regular life and her dangerous closet, she can reinvent herself and be rid of those “inner demons,” as she thinks of them.

 

The Biblical Jonah tried to run away from who he was, so why should she succeed when he could not? Instead of inner peace, what she finds in Mexico is her mental anguish building to a fever pitch. At that point, she knows she has to make some serious decisions in order to take control of her life and achieve true mental health. Can she muster the courage to do what is necessary in order to banish her demons?

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Escaping The Whale Review

Kind words

Pamela Burke, PhD.,

Social Psychologist and

N.J. Council of the Arts

Fellowship Recipient for Fiction

... Rotkowitz brilliantly demonstrates that the historical period forty years ago was a warm-up to the challenges we face now. Imagine being a young woman raised by parents traumatized by their escape from the Nazis, trying to lead the perfect life as the perfect daughter, while the entire country tensely waits for the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis. How do you take the risks needed to set yourself free from your loved ones' debilitating trauma?

Helen Locke,

Education Committee,

Phoenix Holocaust Association

A beautifully written account of a young woman grappling with the emotional upheaval often associated with children of Holocaust survivors. Set against the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, the author deftly takes us into the mind of this high school guidance counselor as she struggles with trauma at her job and in her personal relationships with family and friends. You'll want to cheer Marcia on her journey!

Andrew R. Heinz,

Author of

Jews and the American Soul

In this sensitive, probing, achingly passionate novel, Ruth Rotkowitz leads us into the haunted world of Marcia Gold, a child of Holocaust survivors at a breaking point in her all-too-American life. On the surface, Marcia succeeds beautifully. But just below, everything is wrong. Marcia struggles with mysterious panic attacks she confides to no one, and when her private torment finally explodes, Marcia flees everything, only to discover that she cannot flee from herself and the traumatic legacy of her family's past. A Jewish story, a woman's story, a universal story about our struggle to defeat the demons - both human and imagined - that dare us to fight for our survival, our sanity, our humanity.

Javi's Reviews

Escaping the Whale is haunting and atmospheric, yet emotional and vulnerable story, that creeps on you and leaves a mark.

 

I recently read an article about the post-traumatic stress that Holocaust survivors endure which fascinated me. Similarly,  this book accurately depicts the psychological turmoil that Marcia faces that sends her life on a downward spiral.

There was one particular dialogue that Jason tells Marcia over their conversation, which is: “Sometimes you have to not let things get to you, Marcia. Otherwise, life just stops. You get nowhere.” There are many such passages in the story that beautifully summarizes my take on the story. Although WWII is over, humans as a species continue to fight and attack one another for the greater power. As a result, many become victims amidst all this and find it difficult to cope with reality. The story realistically depicts how a person like Marcia would suffers with mental health issues as the repercussion.

  

Speaking of Marcia, I thought she was wonderful as the main character. You know there is something different about her as soon as the author introduces her. At times, you just want to step into the pages and be by her side to help her. Moreover, even the supporting cast like Jason, Cheryl and Rochelle add well to the story.

However, the only minor criticism I have towards the novel is how it tends to get lengthy in certain places. For instance, the author provides counselling to various students like Lucy, Polly and Corrine, but they felt repetitive and redundant. Apart from that, this was a compelling read. Overall, I liked how the story dwells into the mind of next generation Holocaust Survivor.

Beyond The Books With

Sharon Rimmelzwaan

‘Escaping The Whale’ by Ruth Rotkowitz is a highly charged emotional story of a daughter of Holocaust Survivors and the trauma that brings with it.

 

Marcia Gold has what could be perceived as a perfect life. She is a school Guidance Counsellor who helps pregnant teenagers and has a supportive boyfriend. Underneath the perfection, she is, in reality, battling demons and has panic attacks as well. These are quite clearly part of her trying to deal with her parents’ trauma from being holocaust survivors. She watches footage of the Iranian hostage situation at the time and this makes her even more aware of the fact that her trauma can be linked to present-day issues and it can affect everyone. Marcia deals with these issues, that are becoming bigger, alone. She doesn’t tell her boyfriend or anyone, due to the fact that she feels her issues aren’t big enough to warrant help. Eventually, she gets to a point where she attempts to escape from everything and everyone but comes to a realisation that she will always come back to the root of the issue, it can’t be escaped from.

 

I was totally engrossed in Marcia’s journey and really felt like I wanted to save her but knew I couldn’t. It takes a good storyteller to make you feel it is that real and Escaping The Whale is an excellent example of storytelling.

 

In my opinion, this book is as important as an actual Holocaust survivor’s story. Just because Marcia was not present in the camps, doesn’t mean she can’t be affected. So many families are brought up with the brutal and horrific stories of the Holocaust and no one can tell me these children are not affected mentally with them. Just because it is a historical event for many doesn’t mean it isn’t trauma for the next generation and they never even realise it until they are unable to cope anymore.

 

I really felt for Marcia and like I say, just wanted to help in any way possible, even just to say “You are good enough” in the times when she felt so unimportant. A brilliantly written book and one that should be read by everyone in my opinion.

 

Many thanks to Random Things Tours and the publisher for my copy of this heartbreaking and emotional book to review today.

Jan's Book Buzz

For those who grew up with parents and/or other family members who were Holocaust survivors, they have lived their entire lives accompanied by the Holocaust as if it were an additional living, breathing family member; a shadow cousin perhaps, always lurking in the background, ready to pounce at any given moment. Ask me, I know all about it. I’m a 2nd generation survivor, or as we’re now called … a ‘Descendant’.

 

Incidentally, I found the title interesting, linked to the notion of escape, being a Descendant and the fact that one canot escape one’s past or one’s roots. You see, I have a phobia about whales! I kid you not! It’s a real thing. Look it up, it’s called Cetaphobia. I know that here the whale is a figurative one, and when you read the book, you’ll understand where the connection comes in. But still, I found the title immensely fascinating.

 

For me, this was an intense and emotional read. The main character Marcia, is a school guidance counselor, having evolved from previously being a teacher. She seems to spend the majority of her time dealing with pregnant teens. She doesn’t call her Mom as often as she should, has pretty typical run-ins with her sister over the boyfriend that nobody likes, and continues her relationship with her own long-term boyfriend Jason, who everyone adores (although people do tend to wonder why they aren’t living together).

 

But what Marcia is hiding from everyone is that she is actually, slowly and quietly, but quite definitely, losing her grip on any sort of emotional stability she once had. She is beginning to lack the ability to cope with any of the shocking news that she is hearing and seeing in the world around her – rather difficult when the Iran hostage crisis is a daily reminder of the harsh realities of life. It’s front and centre of every news bulletin and it’s all everyone can talk about. Add to that the constant background nagging of her upbringing and her mother’s incessant stories about what she’d been through, it’s no wonder that Marcia is craving some sort of escape from her own head!

 

This is an in-depth study of spiralling mental illness and the lengths that an individual will go to, to hide it from others. The numerous studies done into the lives and upbringings experienced by descendants of survivors discuss trauma, or secondary trauma extensively: a form of post traumatic stress. This is surely what Marcia is experiencing. Her specific need to protect her mother from what she is feeling is indicative of so many second generation survivors who desperately feel that they cannot let their parents down or disappoint them in any way. So Marcia constantly tries to do the right thing, hold down her acceptable job, stay with her lovely boyfriend … all the while, screaming for a different life for herself … a life that is less safe, and vastly ‘other’ than what everyone expects from her.

 

Roskowitz perfectly depicts so many of the complex issues experienced by 2nd generation survivors, and she portrays them so well that I found it uncannily chilling. Those who have absolutely none of their own knowledge or experience of the subject will gain a vivid picture of what life is like for those who have grown up in a post-Holocaust home, together with survivors.

This a 5-star read that should be added to the list of vital reading for those with an interest in Holocaust literature. It is made even more interesting by it’s highly original plot and in its distinctively different storyline.

 

Many thanks to Random Things Tours for inviting me on this highly unique blog tour. Take a look at what other book bloggers had to say about Escaping the Whale …

Orlando-Books Blog

Set in the 1980’s, Marcia sees the Iran Hostage crisis unfold on TV….adding to her own tensions and anxieties. Marcia is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and struggles with her mental health as being constantly bombarded with news events at home and overseas. She is such a great character, I really felt for her.

Escaping The Whale is an emotion packed and incredibly moving tale of inherited trauma, life and finding your identity. It’s beautifully written with light touches of humour too. This would be a perfect read for a book club as there are so many parts just calling for discussion. 

Thank you to Random Things Tours for the opportunity to be part of this blog tour, for the promotional material and an eARC of Escaping The Whale. This is my honest and unbiased review.

Amsterdam Publishing

Escaping the Whale by Ruth Rotkowitz will have you up until the unholy hours of the morning trying to finish it. It’s a raw, deeply psychological novel about a woman’s experiences as a daughter of Holocaust survivors living in Brooklyn.

We have only good things to say about Ruth Rotkowitz’s second-generation novel Escaping the Whale – and we’re sure you will too! Beautifully written and deeply #psychological, this novel will have you reading it until the wee hours of the morning.

The Book Lover's Boudoir

I’d zero expectations when I started to read this book. That’s usually the best way to really enjoy a book. I thought this was an amazing book. The author uses a third person POV but is so focused on Marcia it felt like a first person narrative. To be honest, I didn’t get any real sense Marcia’s increasingly fragmented mental health had anything to do with the Holocaust or her family history and legacy, but rather the pressure of her life and being in relationship with a man who doesn’t support her and is quite dismissive of her most of the time. Marcia’s mental struggles are portrayed very differently than other books I’ve read with character who have similar struggles. I mean this in a good way. Instead of succumbing to her problems, Marcia faces them head on and decides she needs help and what changes she needs to make in her life to get it. She’s an incredibly strong person. I got so lost in Marcia’s world I didn’t want to leave. This is a remarkable book.

 

OTHER WORKS

Several writing projects are beckoning to me at this time. The first one I plan to tackle is a prequel to Escaping the Whale. Having been asked about my protagonist’s early life at a recent book discussion, I realized that it would be interesting to explore Marcia’s upbringing and give some context to the route that led her to become the person we meet in Escaping the Whale. I am also working on a novel that focuses on an installation artist and it will deal with the problem of obsession, as installation art and obsession are areas that fascinate me. In addition, I have begun a comical book on a family of eccentrics, which includes a talking parrot, living in a run-down castle inherited from their once-wealthy forebears that they are determined to keep despite the fact that they cannot afford it. A love story (with an unconventional ending) is also in the works.

 

Poetry and short pieces will always be a part of my writing output as well, as I find that they are a means to express heartfelt emotion and acute observations. Every form of writing  offers opportunities to explore and communicate, and I relish the sense of fulfillment they provide.

POETRY

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