Solving a Family Mystery in ‘The End of Her’
The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder
By Wayne Hoffman (Heliotrope Books)
Every family has its secrets and its mysteries, but few harbor a century-old unsolved murder. In this engrossing, well-paced memoir, journalist Wayne Hoffman, executive editor of Tablet magazine, sets out to uncover the truth behind the 1913 murder of his maternal great-grandmother, Sarah, in Winnipeg’s Jewish neighborhood. The book is also a heartwarming tribute to his mother, Susan, his confidante and partner in crime-solving, to whom Hoffman is especially close.
Sadly, just as Hoffman begins his detective work, Susan is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the family mystery and Susan’s cognitive abilities unravel in tandem. “It seemed like the perfect time for me to solve the mystery,” he writes. “After all, 2013 was shaping up to be a year of disorientation in my own family, as my mother’s condition changed everything about her, and everyone around her at the same time. It seemed an appropriate mirror for 1913, a pivotal annus horribilis for my ancestors, the year when the family was shattered by loss….”
While the book necessarily has its darker moments—the section relating Susan’s steady decline is heartbreaking—Hoffman knows how to spin a rollicking good yarn. Sarah’s story, as related first to Hoffman by his mother, seems apocryphal: He was told that she was shot in the head by a drive-by sniper while breastfeeding her infant daughter on the porch during a Canadian winter. The bones of the story—the shooting itself next to a young child—are accurate, confirmed by multiple news reports. But the reality turned out to be more credible, and shocking. Sarah was shot while fast asleep in her bed, her toddler nestled by her side. But who would kill a young immigrant mother of four—and why?
Suspects abound: a spurned lover back in Russia, antisemitic household help and, of course, the most obvious suspect, Sarah’s husband—despite a rock-solid alibi placing him in a different province at the time of the murder.
Hoffman’s experience as a journalist stands him in good stead as he works toward the satisfying, if not entirely unpredictable, ending, excavating maps and news clippings, interviewing distant relatives and traveling from his home in New York to western Canada. More than anything, the book is a testament to the bonds of family, and Hoffman’s gift is inviting the reader into his, warts and all.
Joanne Sydney Lessner is an actor, novelist and Drama Desk-nominated lyricist.