September 28, 2020

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Treasure hunt leads to deep historical dive

The Smallest Objective both begins with, and was inspired by, a search for treasure. The treasure in question — never identified and never found — was supposedly buried under the floorboards in author Sharon Kirsch’s parent’s Montreal bedroom by her father years before his death.

As Kirsch prepares to move her mother into an assisted living facility and sell the family home, she decides to look for the treasure. She has no idea what it is or even if it exists, but imagines that it will somehow enlighten her about her father, his values and his dreams.

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That initial search, taken over the course of several weeks, leads Kirsch to more carefully consider several other items she finds stowed away in her parents’ house and to wonder about their provenance. That wonder, in turn, leads her to a full-on exploration of her family history and, by default, to a lesser history of 20th-century Montreal Jewry.

Kirsch, who now resides in Toronto, is a freelance writer and editor, a graduate of the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program, and author of the non-fiction book, What Species of Creatures. As in that earlier book, this new memoir is based on impeccable research, and the prose is equal parts unsentimental, edifying and engaging.

Kirsch is especially forthright and honest when she writes about her mother, her failing health and her failing memory. She is equally adept in the way she juxtapositions the impeding loss of her mother with her newfound family knowledge.

"While the days tentatively grew longer and my mother gradually was vanishing from my life," Kirsch writes, "her house was delivering to me through its objects a family I’d never known."

By exploring and analyzing those objects — yellowed newspaper clippings, scribbled postcards, dog-eared photo albums, a recipe book and an ancient microscope, among myriad other finds — Kirsch reacquaints herself with forgotten family lore and encounters new details about her parents, grandparents and assorted other relatives.

These include her mother’s sister, who died tragically young, and a great uncle with underworld ties.

Through these scrutinized objects, Kirsch begins to appreciate just how much those individual personalities, as well as the stories that were told about them and the stories that were not told about them, shaped her family’s narrative and her own private history.

She is honest too in acknowledging what that implies.

"My own quest for particulars — of the buried treasure, of the lost family members as revealed through their objects — was perhaps exhibiting a similar faith in the way fragments can satisfy or illuminate the whole," she writes.

"Naively, I never considered the hazards that might ensure from a successful quest, how the truth might prove hard to believe or accept, and untruth or ignorance less so."

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

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