A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets by Eunice Lipton

An inquisitive memoir investigates the author’s uncle, who was killed in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

distant heartbeat

Eunice Lipton grew up with an awareness of her uncle Dave that was specific and conflicted in emotional tone, and vague in points of fact. She knew he’d been in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and killed in action when he was 22. His brother Phil says, “Dave died for something. He was somebody.” His brother Louis, the author’s father, says he died for nothing. The author’s mother says he was the nicest man she ever knew. A Distant Heartbeat asks: Who was Dave Lipton? Why did this respectful son lie, tell his parents he would be working at a hotel in the Catskills, and then go to Spain? What does his story have to offer history?

Dave Lipton (formerly Lifshitz) was a Latvian Jewish immigrant, immersed in leftist youth politics in 1930s New York City. Surrounded by peers whose convictions mirrored his, Dave was one of very few to join that foreign war. His niece, born after his death, grew up with only scraps of his life and death: the repeated refrains of family members–died for nothing, died for something–and a few photos discovered in her childhood. She speaks to surviving veterans and friends of Dave, travels to an International Brigades reunion in Spain, studies letters and archival photographs. She finds more questions: What is the nature and cause of familial betrayal? Who was Dave’s mystery companion? In the end, Lipton’s research and musings offer only fleeting conclusions about family and principles, in a precise, elegiac journey through history, family tensions and human drama.


This review originally ran in the April 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 photographs.

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