A Japanese netsuke
I recently read a memoir and family history book, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund De Waal. The author, a world famous potter, inherits a large collection of netsuke: small Japanese wood and ivory carvings.

As Edmund gently examines the whimsical toggles of people and animals, he imagines where they traveled and who held and touched them. His quest into the trail of the netsuke evolves with Edmund's poignant discoveries of his family's history, five generations through time.

The author takes his readers through the extraordinary history of his family as he peels layers of memories. The Ephrussis family had wealth equal to the Rothschilds, build by great-great grandfathers and uncles with minds keen to the banking industry; ancestors that held royal titles and befriended cultural icons and artists.

But Edmund De Waal treads through his ancestry not by the single focus of one ancestor or lineage. He searches his family history by way of the netsuke: how and where the collection traveled through each generation.

By following the path of the netsuke, Edmund takes his readers and himself inside the personal lives of his ancestors but as the netsuke moved from one generation to the next, so did Edmund's search. He uncovers a history of a Jewish family built of monumental wealth in the late 19th century only to loose everything as the next generations fell victim to Nazi Europe.

And yet, the netsuke remained unfettered and steadfast among each generation; the little ivory and woodcarvings withstanding the brutality of time and human demise. They were sometimes held, admired and touched by their owners and sometimes not. But Edmund's discovery of their travels provided a history of previous unknowns.

I found The Hare With Amber Eyes heartrending. And as I read, it brought memories of my own experiences as a child with family heirlooms; playing with my great aunt's knick-knacks or rummaging our attic of old hats and fur coats. Possessions passed from one generation to the next, typically relegated to a dusty attic  only to be replaced by the latest and most desirable.

Family heirlooms tell a story of your history. They give meaning to your heritage. They have been passed through the hands of your ancestral grandfathers and grandmothers--some touching them more than others. But learning of your family heirlooms; when, where and how they were acquired can provide details to your story.

Write your family history and include your heirlooms; who owned them and when. If you lack the details, let the knick-knacks take you through undiscovered territory like Edmund De Waal did with his family.

A journey through time by way of an inheritance: the netsuke, the knick-knack, the china bowl, the precious heirlooms that fell into the lives of our ancestors and they now fall into the lives of us.

Keep searching for answers,




07/29/2012 5:38am

Fascinating stuff and a good review thanks! I see it's one of the books being discussed on
The Book Report - a weekly radio show with interesting content, author interviews and audio book previews. Will definitely be taking a listen (on WIOD610 Sundays) Check out bookreportradio(dot)com for broadcasting details on other stations, but site visitors can also listen to show recordings in the archive section. Thanks for the recommendation!

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