HELEN by Anita Mishook


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A young, Jewish, Polish-American immigrant moves from New York to California and reluctantly infiltrates a pro-Nazi organization in this novel.

Helen Rice, traumatized by her childhood in post–World War I Poland, is happy to be as far away from Europe as possible. At the age of 8, she and her 16-year-old sister, Sarah, immigrated to New York City; their soldier father had been killed in the war and their mother had succumbed to influenza. The two girls lived together until Sarah moved out West with her husband, Harry. In 1936, Helen receives a letter from her sister asking her to come out to California. It’s an opportunity to move even farther away from the gloom of her past—and into the sunshine and warmth of the California dream. She leaves behind her part-time attendance at City College, a bookkeeping job, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Sandy, a member of the Anti-Defamation League. After arriving in California, she learns that Sarah now pretends that she’s from Germany, rather than Poland, because, she says, “Germany has culture.” Soon, Helen becomes privy to her brother-in-law’s backroom bookie operation; then, she’s recruited by Sandy as an ADL spy against the West Coast operation of the pro-Hitler American Bund. Mishook, in her engrossing debut novel, highlights a rarely taught but eerily relevant piece of American history. Along the way, she skillfully weaves together an assortment of disparate themes, including Helen’s complicated relationship with her sister, who strives not to appear “too Jewish”; her insecurities as an immigrant, even though she’s a naturalized American citizen; and the dangers of her espionage assignment. The author’s evocative prose, meanwhile, paints vivid images that get across the magic and allure of California: “Outside the air was warm and breezy, like a fan turned on low. A faint scent sweetened the air, as though a woman had passed by and vanished, leaving only her perfume.”

A well-structured, compelling historical tale.

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-944376-03-1
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Berwick Books
Program: Kirkus Indie
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