Book Review: North of Ithaka

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North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots
This book tells the true story of Eleni Gage, a young American woman who spends almost a year in the Greek village where her father was born, overseeing the restoration of her ancestral home. The home had been abandoned for decades after communists used it as a headquarters and a jail in the late 1940s during the Greek civil war. Those same communists executed Gage’s grandmother for helping her children escape the village and for (allegedly) hiding treasure.

Despite these unhappy circumstances, Gage keeps this memoir fairly upbeat. This book is not a downer. It didn’t make me cry. It didn’t make me sad.

I did get a little tired of Gage’s self-doubt. There was more waffling here than in an Eggo factory. She wondered a lot if renovating the house was the right thing to do. Members of her dad’s family were upset by her decision to remodel the place of so much pain. But what were the neighbors thinking? Were they upset by her actions too? Of course, Gage never asked because she was afraid of the answer. I’m all for questioning motives and actions, but it just kept going on and on in every chapter. Am I doing the right thing? Am I upsetting people? Should I just quit? If Gage were truly concerned about the feelings of her fellow villagers, perhaps she should have actually discussed those feelings with them and explained her motivation. Instead, she did what she wanted to do without soliciting input, but tried to look good in the eyes of her readers by letting them know she really did (constantly) question whether or not she was doing the right thing.

I found two aspects of the book very strange.

#1 Gage got the idea to go to Greece and restore the ancestral home “the weekend after Thanksgiving 2001.” (For those who may have forgotten, that was less than three months after the September 11th attack on New York City.) At the time, Gage was living in New York City, yet there is not one single mention in this entire book about the September 11th attack. Gage does not mention how the attack influenced her decision to leave the U.S. She doesn’t mention how the aftermath of the attack made getting her paperwork in order or her actual travel more difficult. One could read this book and think the attack of NYC on September 11, 2001 never happened.

I lived in the Midwest at the time of the September 11th attack, and folks there couldn’t put the attack and related events out of mind for a long time. To New Yorkers, the attack was (understandably) a HUGE deal. It seems strange for a New Yorker to fail to even acknowledge the attack and related events in a book covering the time period from late 2001 through December 2002.

#2 Where’s the money coming from? Gage mentions (at least twice) that her father (the author Nicholas Gage) is paying for the renovation of the family home. Fair enough. But Eleni Gage quit her job in NYC to spend almost a year in a tiny Greek village where she never references a paying job. Who bought her plane ticket? Who’s paying for her rental car (and its fuel), her Greek cell phone, and the internet access on the new computer she bought in the city? Who’s paying for her to eat? Who’s paying the expenses for the several side trips she writes about? Is she living off her savings? Is she getting paid for free lance writing she’s doing about her time in Greece? Is she living off the advance she received on the deal for this book? When a twenty-seven-year-old woman spends a year abroad and doesn’t mention gainful employment, I think the reader deserves to know how such a thing is possible.

The parts of this book I enjoyed most were the ones where Gage explained the cultures of her region of Greece. Although I’m not religious myself, I enjoyed reading about the villagers’ Easter preparations. I liked reading about the “Gypsy” wedding. (Isn’t the proper term “Roma”? If so, someone should mention that to Gage.) I liked reading about festivals and dancing and name day celebrations.

Gage does a great job of weaving Greek history (ancient and more modern) in with her own experiences. I like having context for why people do what they do. Gage knows how to give that context.

The book ends with six recipes and a bibliography. A glossary of Greek terms would have been nice. (Greek words were defined in the text, but I certainly don’t remember every new word I encountered while reading this book. A glossary would have been a handy reference tool.)

All in all, I did enjoy reading this book, but I have no desire to read it again.

About Blaize Sun

I live in my van, which makes me a rubber tramp. I like to see places I've never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again. I like to play with color. I make collages and hemp jewelry and cheerful winter hats. I take photographs and (sometimes, not in a long time) write poetry. All of those things make me an artist. Although I like to spread joy and to make people laugh, my wit can be sharp. I try to stay positives in all situations, to find the goodness in all people. But I often feel compelled to point out bullshit when I smell it. I like to have fun, to dance, to eat yummy food, to sit by a fire and share stories. I want to know what people hold dear and important, not just make surface small talk. This blog is a way for me to share stories. This blog is made up of my stories, rants, and observations, as well as my photographs.

One Response »

  1. It is simply my cynical nature to give this response. (grin)

    “There was more waffling here than in an Eggo factory.”

    Someone probably told her that if she was writing a book, she had to have conflict in it. It’s possible that the questions she asked were those that were being asked OF HER. She didn’t ask anyone’s opinion because she didn’t care what they thought. She got this idea in her head and it probably never occurred to her to ask what anyone else thought.

    The answer to #1: The fall of the WTC didn’t involve her personally, so it didn’t affect her emotionally.

    The answer to #2: Daddy paid for it.

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