Once We Were Brothers, by Ronald H. Balson. St. Martins Griffin. 378 pages. Trade paperback $15.99.
This dazzling debut by a Chicago trial attorney takes chances and manages to survive them. Told largely in the words of an eighty-three year old Holocaust survivor who has led a quiet life in Chicago, it follows Ben Solomon’s pursuit of justice. Convinced that he has discovered his boyhood friend, a man who became a Nazi soldier, Ben confronts powerful tycoon and respected philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig and insists on bringing him to justice for crimes in Poland during WWII.
At a posh event at the Civic Opera House, Ben approaches the man he believes to be Otto Piatek, who was raised in the Solomon home for many years. Rosenzweig bares his concentration camp tattoo and insists that Ben is confused and that he, Elliot, is actually a Holocaust survivor. Ben, who holds an empty Luger pistol to Elliot’s head, is arrested but soon released.
Ben convinces a reluctant lawyer to explore his case. She wants to know what hard evidence he has, but Ben insists that she must hear the long, winding story of his growing up in Poland, the relationship between the Solomon and Piatek families, the effects on their lives of the Nazi rise to power, Otto’s return to his mother and father, and his re-emergence as an SS officer. The lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, once a fast-track attorney but now rebuilding her damaged career, is a hard sell. Eventually, she succumbs to Ben’s story, his dedication to his mission, and his personality.
Although taking this case leads Catherine to lose her job, it also makes her come alive: she is doing something that she believes in and that can make a difference.
One of the many chances the author takes is to present so much in one voice within a third person narration. The dialogue would seem to overwhelm other story-telling devices, the action held inside of Ben’s narration. Mr. Balson’s skill allows him to get away with this decision. He finds the right breaks in the story – breaks that the reader needs (often formal chapter divisions) and breaks occasioned by Catherine’s need to get other things done that she has let slide.
More importantly, the strength of Ben’s story is so compelling that those of us vicariously listening as Ben speaks to Catherine can barely let ourselves put the book down.
Balson has fleshed out the Poland in which his imaginary personalities lived during the rise of Hitler and the near-demise of the Nazi regime’s scapegoat population. Within the carefully researched and magnificently rendered historical setting, he has built a group of credible and highly individualized characters whose destiny is intrinsically linked to time and place.
We admire the sympathetic, caring nature of Ben’s parents, the glow of Ben’s growing love for Hannah as both of them cross from childhood to adulthood, the sturdy moral nature of Hannah’s father, the generous and courageous risk-taking of many individuals who make the survival of Ben and others possible.
We struggle to understand the strange transition of Otto from a boy who calls the Solomons his true family to a Nazi instrument of cruel dehumanization and devastation.
The story of the two boys is a microcosm for the broader story of all those times and places when and where people of different persuasions and traditions lived in harmony . . . until something corrupted their shared world.
Balson’s book is divided into three sections: “The Confrontation,” “Ben Solomon’s Story,” and “The Lawsuit.” In the final section, Liam, Catherine’s long-time good friend, turns into a major player as the legal battleground becomes one in which he and Catherine are pitted against the enormous clout of the law firm representing Otto/Elliot. As Catherine’s primary investigator on this case, Liam risks losing the big-firm clients he has attracted. However, he too is compelled by Ben’s story. Liam’s love for Catherine, slowly acknowledged and returned, becomes an even greater driving force in his decision.
In the closing section Ronald H. Balson’s legal expertise is put to excellent use. The author develops a fully engaging, meticulous picture of how the case against the celebrity philanthropist is constructed. He gives almost as much detail to the schemes and threats of Rosenzweig’s minions.
Throughout the novel, the possibility of failure is kept dangling. Perhaps Ben is deluded and has identified the wrong man. If he is on target, perhaps his team will fail. How Balson balances these possibilities against the sympathetic reader’s hopes and the progress of the intricate case is a cause for admiration.
Also to be admired is Balson’s portrait of today’s Chicago. But this review must end!
This review appears in the June 2014 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).