Hecker (Full Circle: A Journey in Search of Roots, 2012) makes his fiction debut with the story of George Schwartz, a by-the-book immigration judge who changes his approach to life and work after learning about his ancestors’ struggles with deportation.
George, a descendant of German immigrants to the United States, has begun to investigate his family history, so he travels to Germany to meet relatives and learn the story of another branch of his family. There, he discovers survivors of the Soviet gulag system among his Russian-German relatives, and their antipathy toward the bureaucrats who imprisoned the family leads him to rethink his role in enforcing America’s immigration law. George returns to his work in Seattle, where his girlfriend, Maria, a newspaper reporter, is pleased to discover his change of heart. Together, they get to know Seattle’s immigrant population, and George begins to organize his fellow judges to be more lenient in their interpretation of the harsh 1996 immigration law. While George is content with his professional decisions and with his personal life—Maria agrees to marry him—he faces threats from anti-immigrant hard-liners, and a sudden twist at book’s end puts him in peril. The cliffhanger ending leaves the primary storyline unresolved, so readers might wonder whether a sequel is in the works. Hecker has clearly done his research into the legalities of immigration in the late 1990s, the time of the book’s setting, and in an easy-to-follow fashion, he guides readers through the many federal agencies involved. The book is less successful, however, at incorporating other large quantities of background information; characters often tell each other things they already know merely as a means to inform the reader. That, combined with minor but frequent errors in spelling and punctuation, as well as awkward prose—“He shook his head, realizing that the United States had its own brand of nativists, often called ‘rednecks,’ who made life miserable for newcomers.”—may leave readers appreciating the novel’s approach to an often-overlooked subject while wanting the story to be told in a more thoroughly edited narrative.
Though somewhat unpolished, this novel of family history and immigration reform offers a compelling take on an overlooked subject.