The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe. By Paula Fox. Picador, 133 pp., $13, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Paula Fox is a one-woman antidote to James Frey and others who recently have tarnished the field of memoir-writing. She has written two elegant books about her early life, Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter, and both are gems. Each shows perfect control of its form and is entirely believable. This alone would set her apart from recent memoirists whose sprawling, overstuffed books are full of incidents their authors could not possibly recall in the detail they claim.
But Fox has also led – not had – a remarkable life. In Borrowed Finery she recalled a childhood in which she lived on physical and emotional handouts after her parents abandoned her in infancy. The Coldest Winter picks up the story when, beginning in 1946, she wrote for small British news service and observed the ravages of war in Paris, Warsaw, Madrid and elsewhere. One day she was walking along a sidewalk next to Hyde Park in London and saw a group of men propping up a drunken Winston Churchill: “Not only was he weeping but mascara was puddling under his eyes before it ran down his plump cheeks.” A journalist told her later that “Churchill’s eyelashes were so light, he always wore mascara for filmed interviews.”
This incident is typical of The Coldest Winter. Wherever she goes, Fox knows that people make the story, or the one she wants to tell. This enables her to cast in a fresh light even those, like Churchill, who have found gifted biographers. Many of the people Fox meets are Hitler’s victims – adults with tattoos on their wrists or stunted children living on the former estate of a Prussian aristocrat that the Polish government “had converted into a kind of recovery residence” for orphans whose parents had been murdered by the Nazis. Think of the hour of television we might have seen if Oprah had devoted a show to the fate of those children instead of Frey’s excuses for A Million Little Pieces.
Best line: The journalists and others who traveled to Poland to cover an election included an Irishman “who had distinguished himself by remarking that the wreck of the old Warsaw railroad station was the most aesthetically satisfying bomb site in Europe.”
Worst line: None.
Recommended … without reservation.
Published: November 2006
FYI: Fox’s other books include the The Slave Dancer (Laurel Leaf Reprint, 1997), a historical novel for ages 9-12, which won the Newbery Medal in 1974.
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Janice Harayda does not accept books, catalogs, advance readers’ editions, press releases, or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, literary agents, or authors of new or forthcoming books.