Marta’s Legacy is a two-volume family drama centering on complicated personal relationships amid the turmoil of war and change. Book one, HER MOTHER'S HOPE, was a New York Times bestseller about a young girl's childhood in Europe and her later life as an immigrant in North America during and after World War II. HER DAUGHTER'S DREAM concludes Marta Schneider's story and is even more influential and better than the first, taking readers through modern generational struggles within Marta's military family. It sifts through layers of tension and distrust built over time between mothers and daughters, and carries Marta's legacy full circle.
As in HER MOTHER’S HOPE, this second volume is narrated by several characters, and Marta's motives are best defined by her letters to her friend Rosie. In Part I, her daughter Hildemara picks up the saga in 1951, close to the point where the first book ended. Again, Hildie is deathly ill with tuberculosis and struggling with her frame of mind. She lives at the hospital, an attempt to prevent the spread of infection across her family. Hildie plans on dying, and it takes some not-so-gentle prodding by Marta for her to regain her will to live and risk returning home. After presenting the grim realities of Hildie's health problems, the story steps forward yet another generation.
Parts II and III are narrated by Hildie's daughter and granddaughter, respectively: Carolyn Arundel and May Flower Dawn. Their stories occur during the Vietnam and Cold War eras, with both points of view beginning in early childhood. Rivers does an excellent job of transitioning between the early and later years of her characters, and unique personalities are revealed with skill and subtlety. She is also skillful in blending current events with the daily lives of her characters, and the history is less tangential than in book one. These narratives reveal both Carolyn and Dawn to be tender-hearted children, much as Hildie was, who grow distant despite having well-meaning parents. Most of their bad feelings stem from particular childhood events, and some are the direct result of difficult life circumstances.
While Carolyn’s and Dawn's stories do focus on the enduring quality of love, they also dwell on some cruelty and callousness. Carolyn's hardships in her early childhood are by far the worst, more shocking and harrowing than even Marta's had been. But this does shape the woman Carolyn becomes, and the path she chooses is different from any who have come before her. Her dreams lead her to Berkeley and then toward becoming a hippie, and she actively protests the Vietnam War --- even with her own brother serving as a soldier. In the heat and turmoil of the protests in the 1960s, Carolyn loses herself and becomes a soul without purpose. She's an addict who stands not truly for peace but for choosing a lifestyle that drowns out the past --- that is until the day she discovers she's pregnant. Her personal life becomes the fuel for a raging fire that will burn her entire family, but it is Carolyn who will be a source for understanding and forgiveness in the future when she offers her gentle wisdom to Dawn, who needs her guidance.
Marta's part in this second book is less central but more defining than in the first. Her relationship with Hildie becomes a new focus here, and she spends her later years supporting her daughter and family rather than pursuing her own dreams. Marta works hard to break down walls but is met with nothing but opposition, yet still she never gives up and shifts her efforts toward providing encouragement and understanding. She can see that withholding love has hurt her family before but recognizes that some of her actions have been necessary. This question of how much support and love a person needs versus an approach that demands more responsibility and independence is a central one to which Rivers never gives a definite answer. But, much like Marta, Rivers's wisdom is there for the taking, buried within the lives of her characters. By the end, Marta will be recognized as the center of knowledge, judiciousness and faith in her family --- a gratifying close for a character who's been a wonderful leading lady.
Marta’s Legacy is one of the best works of historical fiction I've encountered. Those who haven't read the first volume should be aware that it is absolutely necessary to your understanding of this one. And I would highly encourage you to do so. I count it as a favorite in the genre.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on November 13, 2011