Despite the fact the Gatins is not a well-known name outside of Atlanta, and that this history was written by a family member, readers of We Were Dancing on a Volcano by Joseph Gatins are in for a pleasant surprise. Not only is the family as fascinating as the Kennedys to whom they bear some surface similarities (Irish Catholic, a rich scion with a disreputable past, a war hero and international impact), but the author is able to keep his distance and cast a cold critical eye on the family curse of alcoholism and its insidious legacy.
The Gatins family story begins with the founder's acquisition of considerable wealth through illegal speculation in New York, his investments in real estate in Atlanta and the building of the Georgia Terrace Hotel which provided income for the next three generations. Where the book evolves from interesting to fascinating, however, is with the founder's marriage to a French noblewoman and the subsequent connections to Paris which would continue in the succeeding generations. The most compelling is the tale of Joseph Francis Gatins III, the author's father who served in the French Army during World War II, was captured by the Germans, tortured because they thought he was Jewish, and who escaped several times only to be transferred to more and more horrible prison camps. With the help of his mother, Eglé Gatins, who smuggled gold coins to him in tins of honey via Red Cross care packages, he was able to bribe prison guards and get transferred finally to a work detail from which he finally made his way to freedom. This whole section with escape attempts being foiled, prisoners being executed, and the boxcars of Jewish prisoners transported to death camps as part of the Third Reich's "Final Solution" is as compelling as an action novel.
For more sophisticated readers, Eglé's own life "entre deux guerres" in Paris is as rich as Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. She knew Hemingway, of course, and Gertrude Stein, Paul Valery, de la Rochefoucauld, and Paul Claudel. Another of her friends was Sylvia Beach, the founder of the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris. She was a cousin of the well-know paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These wonderful years between the wars give the book its title, to quote Eglé in her own letter: "We were dancing on a volcano," the German resentment over Versailles which would eventually plunge the world into a devastating war. Soon the invasion of Paris would come and the end to life as Eglé and most Europeans knew it. During the war, she not only worked to get her son out of the German Stalag, but she also labored to help other prisoners through the International Red Cross, and operated as a liaison for the French Resistance. For her services she received France's highest award, the Legion of Honor.
Joesph Gatins' research is extensive and the book contains a useful index as well as voluminous end- notes and a bibliography. It is the work of a careful historian with a journalist's eye for the telling detail, as well as the compulsion to tell the whole truth even when it might sometimes be embarrassing to other family members. The book itself is handsomely designed and rich with photographs which show us not only the colorful characters that enlivened four generations of the Gatins family but a mini-documentary of their lives and the times.
11.26.09. Amazon. "Worlds Converge." B. Smith, (Rabun Gap, GA). A beautiful French lady becomes a wise old woman living in an apartment in Buckhead, a neighborhood of Atlanta Georgia; this seemed to be the hook that drew me into, We Were Dancing on A Volcano. Seeing history through the eyes of this lady as she lives through the French Occupation helps make it less textbook and more real. My favorite part of the book was the last few chapters as the author wove the strands together and put himself into the picture with his own memories. This book was well researched and written, but when feelings and emotions were added to the weaving, it gave it a more personal touch that allows all the parts to converge into one man's story and his place in history.
10.31.09. Amazon. "Fascinating Family Saga. Five-star review from Marianne J. Skeen (Decatur, GA). "This unvarnished account of a multi-national family with strong historic ties to Atlanta provides a personal window into the turbulent times of the 20th century. The volcano erupts and it's not always pretty, but always intriguing, especially when viewed from the family perspective. I meant to read just a bit more while finished a cup of coffee after breakfast, but ended up reading the second half straight through! I found it a bit slow at the beginning, but it really gained momentum when the author's personal reflections began to dominate. It's both a thoroughly researched history and fascinating tale."
10.31.09. Amazon. "A Must Read." Five-star review by Alexander Shapleigh (Massachusetts). "We Were Dancing on a Volcano is a compelling read from start to finish. It traces the coming together of two extended families in Atlanta and France over five generations, against the backdrop of the emergence of Atlanta after the Civil War, the fast money and wealth of the Gilded Age, the Belle Epoque in Paris, the concentration camps of World War II, and the author's coming of age in Vietnam and as a journalist. As pure history, one is drawn from chapter to chapter in anticipation of what will be the fate of each generation on both continents (and a third -- South America also enters the story). As pure, and emotionally charged, writing, the real life characters all come vividly onto the scene, backed by thorough research and unmasked conclusions by the author on motivations and outcomes of decisions (and behaviors) of each protagonist. There is a treasure of history and stories in this book that should resonate with hundreds of thousands of potential readers, who can pick and choose where and how it relates to their own experience, and will leave them contemplating about the roll of the generations, the very real lives that our forebear generations have led, the lives that we are now living, and that those who follow will have in turn."
10.30.09. "Consistently excites the imagination." Dissection and critique by James Crusselle (Atlanta, GA), in the form of a letter to the author's sister, Eglé. "I thoroughly enjoyed your brother's book. He has a journalist's instinct for the telling detail, so that he's able to use what he shows us to evoke what he doesn't. When he has no way of knowing what happened, and has to speculate, he's scrupulous about letting us know that that's what he's doing, and he does it with a tact and intelligence that opens up the subject. By having the wit to tell us, for instance, what the various historical terms for alcoholism were, he even gets by with such currently fashionable diagnoses as post traumatic stress disorder (a real howler, I think) and, of course, alcoholism. We get a sense of a problem larger, as he points out, than anyone has yet been able to define properly and solve. We get a sense of the mystery of how clinical data actually function in people's lives (to the extent that they do). Terms like these tell us less than they're popularly thought to mean, and too neatly close off the subject. They don't in this case because the author's mind is always at work exploring the possibilities in the people he's writing about, and in the use of language. It's a gesture of what can only be called love, and not in the sentimental popular sense but in the sense of accepting the potential of one's self in others and vice versa. (This is not always a happy discovery -- especially, I'm afraid, when the others are relatives.) Having read some truly terrible attempts at this sort of thing, I know just about every way his book could have gone wrong. It doesn’t.