Having lived only a couple of hours from Montreal, in Vermont, for most of the last decade, the city has had an ever-shifting presence in my life. In college, it was where underage friends went to drink; in the years immediately afterward, the never-ceasing flow of Quebec tourists and shoppers became how I observed the culture of Montreal. In recent years, a friendship and shared literary tastes with a Quebecer led to a deeper fascination with the literature of Montreal and the city itself. So, still somehow managing to never visit, reading a memoir of a childhood in Montreal was a chance at experiencing another aspect of the place.
George Ellenbogen’s A Stone in My Shoe is his story of Jewish culture within Montreal. The time from his youth through to graduating high school fills the majority of the pages, but A Stone in My Shoe is about much more than one life: it is about his family, the extended, not always biological family, and about the city. In describing the physical traits of the old buildings of his neighbourhood, he notes the stairways built on the outside and the possible reasons for that. After offering the practical, Ellenbogen affectionately admits this is “Not as charming an explanation as the one, probably apocryphal, that views them, exposed to public view, as a means to discourage teenage necking.” Cities don’t live just in facts, anecdotes, and people, but in myths, in the rumours passed around neighbourhoods by enthusiastic children, or adults amusing themselves by telling tales.
Ellenbogen’s history begins briefly with his great-grandfather, moves on to his grandparents, then follows his parents’ path to living in Montreal. In these pages, the importance of family history is clear, both his attempt to recover it, and to draw the connections to his own children. It also makes clear that World War II will be ever in the background. His parents settling in Montreal prompts a history of the Jewish neighbourhood and the origins of Jewish history in Quebec. Simply by following one train of thought to another, Ellenbogen connects his life, his parents’ lives, Jewish Quebec history, and the physical, city-planning-like history of the neighbourhood. They are all necessarily reflective of each other.
In his description of the neighbourhood of his youth, the familiar emerges. He writes, “On summer nights […] the neighbours chatted on their front porches,” and “As children, we drifted with equal casualness into one another’s homes, observing the mannerisms and sampling the cuisine of those who came from different regions of Europe.”
Touches like these, and many others throughout, feel like they could come from any memoir of any place, written about a certain time. It alternates between boring and heartening: boring to read, but heartening to know how many experiences are shared. The trick to success comes in the telling, in the new details the memoirist finds.
This is equally true for the writing of a city as for the writing of a self. When Ellenbogen writes of his grandmother overfeeding the family and not letting anyone refuse, it’s something we’ve read and seen countless times before, and seems less a memory and more an acknowledgement of the idea of a grandmother. And yes, as children, he and his brother tried to spy, through knotholes in a wall, on undressing women. These bits feel workmanlike. When he finds memories specific to him instead of tropes of the genre, such as attending a Montreal Royals game only to find out it was actually a Negro League game that day, A Stone in My Shoe entertains and recreates an individual’s life.
The strengths of A Stone in My Shoe are built on Ellenbogen’s natural humbleness. In telling his own story, he branches out at every chance. Through this he portrays a wonderfully vast family.
From his mother, father, and brother, he moves to grandparents, then to aunts and uncles. It doesn’t stop there, though; family friends are just as important in his life, in his love, from his father’s close friends, to his young employee, to Miss Bonnehomme, who watched the young brothers when their parents were out. Later, when the family has a house in the Laurentians, the web expands again. Ellenbogen is grateful to the people who briefly became part of his life and family, and wants to breathe with them again.
He doesn’t force specialness on moments or memories, admitting what he forgets what would once have been expected to be memorable, like the face of an childhood classmate who died in second grade. That he is the centre of the memoir, but not dominating over the rest in importance is in the structure of the book, too. It is split into two parts, each containing multiple chapters. In the organization of the parts Ellenbogen recognizes the larger world of his childhood. Following tradition, the personal break is between youth and manhood and the first chapter is the story of his studies for his bar mitzvah. But notably, before telling this story, he takes time for the presence of World War II.
Ellenbogen notes succinctly that “the neighbourhood completed my education, giving me a texture of daily life, a tapestry of triumph, [and] fear.” The most successful moments are when he conjures the memories that built this, such as when he and his brother cut their hair in the shape of a V for victory sign. It’s a fun, classic childhood memory, but with the touch that lands it in his time, his place. In mourning the passing of time, the changes that swept Montreal, as they sweep all cities, Ellenbogen is not clamouring for the past but writing it to keep its memory alive while he embraces the “aromas escaping from restaurants” that “identify fresh ethnic groups.” This effort being the heart of many memoirs, Ellenbogen’s fits the tradition nicely. A Stone in My Shoe will suit if you are a loving fan of the genre, or have specific affection for Montreal. If you aren’t, it may not change either, but it will deliver its moments of pleasure.
Review by P.T. Smith