Steeped in the history of the Jewish Diaspora, Barbara Krasnoff’s mosaic novel The History of Soul 2065 charts fifteen decades (1914-2065) of life for two families whose individual members have no idea just how connected they are, nor just how much subtle magic influences the small and large decisions of their lives. The twenty interlinked stories in this collection, five of which are appearing for the first time, center strong women. In story after story, the author reminds us that while we are all the main characters in our own stories, we are also characters in the stories of others, and that we are always influenced by those who have gone before just as we will influence those who will come after.
A mystical forest clearing brings four very different young girls together at the start and near the end of the book. In 1914, we are inroduced to the family progenitors, Chana and Sophia. They come almost literally from different worlds: different socio-economic statuses (Chana’s family is poor, Sophia’s upper-middle-class if not rich) in different nations (Chana is Russian, Sophia German), each in its own way preparing to turn on its Jewish citizenry if not already actively doing so. In a mundane world, these two would never have met; it is only the act of each stumbling into a magical clearing that is everywhere and nowhere that allows them to briefly come together. And although Chana and Sophia never meet again, their descendants do, unknowingly interacting in large and small ways until the two family trees become one in the early 2000s, when Chana and Sophia’s great-granddaughters visit that same clearing.
The magic in that first story, and in most of the stories which follow, is bound up so much in ordinary, everyday objects that it is practically invisible. Very often the main characters, like Chana and Sophia in “The Clearing in the Autumn,” don’t realize that what’s happening to them is magic at all. For instance, in “Stoop Ladies,” Julie Jacobsen (the daughter of a close friend of a Sophia-family member) thinks the local older women who gather on an apartment building’s steps every day are just being nice in listening to her problems while they are in fact performing ritual magic right in front of her. In “Under the Bay Court Tree,” Carlos Acosta (Sophia’s grandson-in-law) experiences the subtle magic of a neighborhood watchlady in dealing with an unruly neighbor. The main characters are often able to shrug off the magic as coincidence or the results of a strong personality affecting others’ behavior. But not always. Abe Hirsch (Chana’s eventual husband) in “Sabbath Wine,” and Joan Feldman (Chana’s granddaughter-in-law), in “The Ladder-Back Chair,”are both well aware by the end of the story that they’ve been touched by the supernatural in positive and life-affirming ways.
In several stories, the supernatural or magical aspect is as far from subtle as one can get, actually having the potential to change history. In “Time and the Parakeet,” “Sophia’s Legacy,” and “An Awfully Big Adventure,” Sophia’s granddaughter Eileen, great-granddaughter Rachel, and grandson Ben either come face-to-face with supernatural entities or are knowingly complicit in a magical act. The first two stories involve changing or confirming family history. The third, “An Awfully Big Adventure,” stands out from the rest of the book because of its ramifications on world history.
In both obvious and subtle ways, the characters’ Jewish backgrounds and traditions permeate almost every story. There are Seder dinners in the present, fears of anti-Jewish sentiment in WWI and WWII Europe in the past, dybbuks and family spirits in both time periods, and more subtle character nicknames and turns of phrase. Not every character in the book is Jewish, but they are all impacted by the complicated history the Jewish community has experienced in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Sophia’s grandson Ben appears in several stories, exemplifying the idea that I mention above, that we may be the main character in our own story while at the same time having a supporting or cameo role in the stories of others. While Ben is the protagonist of “An Awfully Big Adventure,” he also appears in and narrates “Hearts and Minds,” a story that focuses on Chana’s husband Abe, in which Ben and Abe do not realize how interconnected their families are. Ben’s influence is felt in a more subtle way in “Under the Bay Court Tree,” a story about his husband Carlos; Ben also appears briefly, near death, in “The Cancer God,” which focuses on Chana’s son-in-law Jakie. Because of the way Krasnoff has ordered the individual stories, the story in which Ben is at his youngest, and in which he is the focal character, comes after all of his other appearances, allowing the reader to learn in full the future only hinted at for Ben in “An Awfully Big Adventure.”
“Sophia’s Legacy” and “An Awfully Big Adventure” share another significant feature: they each demonstrate the influence of the past and future on the present. In “Sophia’s Legacy,” four generations of strong women interact through a simple spell-working; all of Sophia’s efforts for her daughter Isabeau to survive the advent of the Second World War hinge on influence from her chess-prodigy great-granddaughter in 1998. The magic itself is subtle, tied to water and a pair of inherited earrings. The importance of generational knowledge, of the handing down of family legend (“great-grandmother saved grandmother’s life by unexpectedly winning a chess match with her husband”), is a not-so-subtle message to the reader: let us not forget where we came from and how we got here. The past and future also influence the major decision facing Ben in “An Awfully Big Adventure.” It is 1962, and young Ben is visited by a supernatural entity who hopes to use his innocence against him and draw on that energy to push world events to devastation. But Ben has help from the generations of his family that came before and will come after: his grandmother Sophia leads a host of spirits that includes Ben’s future husband Carlos. Getting glimpses of his family’s tragic past and his own potentially happy future (even if he doesn’t understand why Carlos will be so important to him) give the boy the strength he needs. This is the power of family – both family history and family hope – writ large, and it is one of the most powerful stories in the book.
Near the end of the book, Chana and Sophia’s great-granddaughters complete the circle, visiting that forest clearing on a spring day. They access it from a trail in Prospect Park instead of from a forest in Russia or an estate in Germany, but there is no doubt it is the same clearing. This is the real “passing of the baton.” Although Chana and Sophia don’t tangibly appear to their great-granddaughters, their spirits clearly approve of what will not be just a lifelong friendship but a lifelong love. That leads into the title story, “The History of Soul 2065,” which projects this now-united family tree into our own future, hinting at world events that will further spread the Jewish diaspora. Through the lives of Rachel and Annie, Krasnoff reconfirms the book’s central thesis that the past and future, the living and the dead, are inextricably intertwined—that even the brief presence of someone in our lives can alter our course and sometimes alter the course of the world.