Cohen’s debut novel offers a fictionalized account of her immigrant grandfather and first-generation American grandmother as they struggle to grow up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.
Isadore Goldshlager is a young, Romanian Jew who’s living in the town of Iasi at the outset of this story. The general anti-Semitic attitude of the Romanian government, as well as increasing violence against Jewish citizens, inspires him to get his parents’ permission to immigrate to America with a friend at the tender age of 15. Across the ocean in New York City, Gussie Brotman, the American-born daughter of Polish immigrants, is struggling to deal with the recent death of her father and the increasing demands on her time by her single mother, who needs help raising Gussie’s younger siblings. The narrative alternates between these two main characters as they steadily age, recounting the immigration challenges they faced, their encounters with bigotry, and their difficulties meeting family expectations and achieving the American dream. It’s easy to sympathize with the hardworking Isadore, who feels stuck without a trade, and who’s less attractive and successful than his younger brother. Gussie, too, is relatable as a young woman who’s cut off from school and peers, stuck babysitting her younger brother, and fantasizing while reading books that she borrows from the library. Although this fictional story draws upon the author’s family history, it’s not so sentimental that strangers will find it inaccessible. Indeed, anyone whose family has experienced the hardships of immigration and assimilation will appreciate the book’s message. In straightforward, matter-of-fact prose, Cohen portrays her characters’ foibles as well as their virtues. There are some mentions of unexplained Jewish customs and traditions, and some readers may need to do research to fully understand them. Overall, though, this book is appropriate for readers in their early teens and older.
An often engaging story that will likely appeal to readers with an interest in genealogy, immigration history, or Jewish history.