“The Muralist” by B.A. Shapiro is an historical and suspenseful mystery about life, art and the politics of pre-World War ll New York City as the setting. In 1940 Alizée Benoit vanished in N.Y.C. and no one knew what happened to her. In the present, Danielle Abrams is trying to track down what happened to her great aunt 70 years before. The author combines historical facts with fictional characters to create the story. The chapters alternate between the two women and their times.
“The Muralist” moves between the perspectives of both women. Alizée Benoit, an Abstract Expressionist artist, worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in 1940 as the situation in Europe became more tense and dangerous. Danielle, her great niece, is working as a young researcher at Christie’s Auction House in 2015 in New York City. When a shipment of mysterious paintings from the WPA period arrives at the auction house, Danielle finds several vellum envelopes taped to the back of some of the canvases.
In the 1940s the art division of the Federal Art Project of the WPA had hired artists to paint murals on government buildings. Among them were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner. None of them was a known artist at the time, but due to the luxury of having these government jobs, they were able to experiment with their art and collectively start the first American art movement called Abstract Expressionism.
Alizée was a gifted artist and also Jewish, as were Rothko and Krasner. All of Alizée’s relatives were in Arles, in German-occupied France, and she was working diligently to obtain visas for them. Alizée had returned to the States from France in 1937 after living with her aunt and uncle, her cousins Babette, Henri and Alain, for seven years after the death of her parents, both scientists, killed in a laboratory accident.
The U.S. was in a Depression with high unemployment. Many countries in Europe had fallen under Nazi rule. Refugees were desperate for visas to come to the States, but there were some bureaucrats who felt that letting in immigrants would take jobs from Americans. There are individuals like Assistant Secretary Breckinridge Long, in charge of the Immigrant Visa Division, who did not want Jews coming here and devised a strict anti-immigration policy.
An important subplot in the story is that eventually part of Alizée’s family boarded the S.S. St. Louis, a German ocean liner sailing to Havana where the family had to live until they could enter the United States. Denied entry to Cuba, the ocean liner sailed on to the coast of Miami where the family’s pleas went unheard and they were turned back to Europe.
Through the eyes of Alizée these years come to life. She meets Eleanor Roosevelt, by chance, and the First Lady becomes an early patron. Alizée sells her mother’s jewelry to raise money for visas and joins the newly formed Emergency Rescue Committee working with Varian Fry, a foreign correspondent and Protestant, who is helping Jews escape Vichy France.
The author involves the reader in the prewar politics and the forgotten plight of Europeans refugees refused entry into the U.S. The reader is also made aware of the inner workings of today’s art world scene. The story is poignant and well researched.