I feel eerily connected to the story of The Tiger's Wife and I'll share that reason in a moment. This richly woven story explores the complex relationship between a grandfather and granddaughter, a fascinating line of consanguinity that has gone mostly unexplored in mainstream fiction until now.
I am only a few chapters into the story, but the tenuous bonds between Natalie and her grandfather have led me to recall the time when I was 15 years old and my maternal grandfather, affectionately known to me as Daddy Bill, tried to tell me something.
At that time, I was so preoccupied with my perpetual state of teenage angst, I was convinced he was trying to tell me nothing. I now realize he was trying to tell me everything.
Daddy Bill told me his grandfather's name was Georges Clemenceau. This would make me the great- great grand daughter of Georges Clemenceau. Yes, the Georges Clemenceau known as the Prime Minister of France during World War I. This would be the turn of the century's equivalent to Nicholas Sarkozy.
Here is what I can recall of the story.
George was born to an African slave woman and her slave master. At some point, he and his brothers settled in Finleyville, PA. He fled to France in the 1800s and passed as a white man only to later reach the country's highest office. He changed his American surname, 'Clement' (our family name) to the more French 'Clemenceau.'
This chapter in history cannot be Googled, as this is something relatively unknown by anyone outside of my family until now.
Daddy Bill showed me photos of a younger Clemenceau in our family's home in Finleyville and other artifacts and photos so old, I thought they smelled liked pungent bananas. At the time, I thought I was humoring the old man by half listening to his story. I do recall noting that the man in the old photos did look just like my grandfather only with paler skin. Looking at photos of Clemenceau today, I can clearly see my mother's face as well as my own. I now know my grandfather was not trying to amuse me, he was trying to bequeath me the story of my lineage. It was my inheritance and I snubbed it. Not intentionally, but by underestimating its value. He was linking the wildly significant past to my seemingly insignificant present.
I was 15 and mad at the world. Now that the world has been forgiven, Daddy Bill's story is unyielding to my memory and vital details still evade me.
I wish I had been more present in the moment. The photos are grainy in my head. His words are barely audible. I mentally try to grasp the details of the sepia stained documents and they're gone. As gone as my grandfather's ghost.
Shortly after sharing this information with me, my grandfather became estranged from the family and later died. A neighbor of his threw all of the documents and photos in the trash because he wasn't certain any next of kin would come to claim them. It is now clear that my grandfather considered me worthy of being the gatekeeper of his family's history. He hoped I'd bring light to the truth, but I failed him.
I'm sure this story would pose a few issues for the public. I am clearly African-American. Georges Clemenceau, was clearly a European Frenchmen. Or was he? My own Internet research tells me Ernest Hemingway himself noted that in Clemenceau's later years his face looked oddly Mandarin and hardly French at all. I find this amusing because I have often been told I have Asiatic features.
Clemenceau later became know in the press as "The Tiger." This due to his mercurial and relentless nature which was mostly shown in his hawkish attitude towards Germany post World War I. This is a trait most people who know me would argue he passed onto me.
It is for this reason that I believe my participation in reading The Tiger's Wife with Huffington Post's Book Club is divinely inspired. This is a unique opportunity to live vicariously through our heroine as she uncovers the verity of her grandfather's past.
For now, my grandfather's story of a Tiger remains mostly unknown, leaving me to grasp for his ghost as Téa Obreht's story of a Tiger unfolds.