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Paula Fox's impressionistic memoir of her year in Europe immediately after the war in 1946, "The Coldest Winter," paints small scenes that evoke larger feelings, much like her earlier memoir, "Borrowed Finery." In both books Fox shifts, sometimes abruptly, from one experience to another, moving through the memories that stuck in her mind through the years. She was only 23 at the time of her European trip, a willing, but not lighthearted soul.
"The Coldest Winter" benefits from a reading of "Borrowed Finery," the 2001 award-winning memoir of her childhood, now out in paperback. The impressions of a fairly impoverished American innocent, alone and quiet, though by no means meek, among the war worn people of London, Paris, Warsaw and Spain take on greater heft when you know the trauma and rootlessness of Fox's own childhood.
The daughter of glamorous, feckless, disturbed parents, Fox had been left at a Manhattan foundling home days after her birth, "by my reluctant father, and by Elsie, my mother, panic-stricken and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me." Her parents were Hollywood screenwriters and her father was an alcoholic of the impulsive type who might insist his daughter visit then leave her with friends - or forget to go the railway station to pick her up at all. Her mother remained consistently hostile and terrifying.
There was, however, love in her life. Reverend Elwood Amos Corning, a Congregational minister in a poor, rural upstate community, took her in at five months old and provided unconditional love and safety. What he could not do, however, was protect the child from the erratic claims of her parents. Each week after the comforting ritual of his church service she would have a moment of panic.
"My unquestioning trust in Uncle Elwood's love, and in the refuge he had provided for me...would abruptly collapse. In an instant I realized the precariousness of my circumstances. I felt the earth crumble beneath my feet. I tottered on the edge of an abyss. If I fell, I knew I would fall forever.
"This happened too every Sunday after church. But it lasted no longer than in takes to describe it."
Eventually the day she dreaded arrived. After a horrific year in Malibu with her parents, from which she was rescued by Uncle Elwood, her Spanish grandmother, Elsie's mother, shows up to claim her once and for all. "She is of my blood," Candeleria tells Elwood.
"It was far worse than a fairy tale enchantment. My parting from the minister was an amputation."
Two of Elsie's four oddball brothers live with Candeleria. One of them is almost as terrifying as Elsie while the other is kind and playful. He lifts her out of the depression that has crept over her. But nothing can make her world safe again.
"The Coldest Winter," has a melancholy, almost desperate aura that readers who have not read the earlier memoir will find perplexing, having no way of knowing that Fox is running off to Europe to escape her New York life and the searing memories of a brief, brutal marriage and a sad pregnancy which ended with an instantly regretted adoption.
Though Fox often conveys the impression of being an outsider looking on at the world, this feeling is especially pronounced in "The Coldest Winter." In London she gets a job working for a publisher. One day a policeman knocks at her door, asking for her work permit, then takes her to the station to get one.
"I had heard that one needed a work permit but had not taken the requirement seriously. Perhaps it was myself I did not take seriously. For a minute I grasped at the shadowy nature of reality; of how one moves through it like a mist, forever thinking of what comes next and how impalpable the present is.
"I made my way back to Wandsworth, chastened....I held the work permit in my hand, consoled by its meaning: The government protected its citizens and took my presence in England seriously."
Later, working for a small news wire, she meets people still reeling from the war - a fascist youth who talks raptly of executions he had witnessed, a tireless American Jew driven by the guilt of remaining unscathed by the Holocaust, a former political prisoner whose twin daughters had been killed by Mengele, and, most haunting of all, the children at an orphanage for those born in the camps. Enmeshed with these small, intense portraits is the bone-chilling cold of that winter, the glamour of hobnobbing with real journalists in smoky bars, and the general privation and destruction that prevailed throughout Europe in 1946.
The author of six novels and the Newbery Award-winning author of many children's books, Fox's prose is as elegant as it is spare, conveying a haunting, sad beauty that remains with the reader long after the last page is turned.