Lugubrious memoir from the nonagenarian author of The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers (2007).
Bernstein was 12 in 1922 when steamship tickets to America from an unknown donor mysteriously arrived, sending the family—hardworking, long-suffering mother, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed father and six children—to join relatives in Chicago. The father, depicted as thoroughly despicable, swiftly alienated the grandmother, and they were all thrown out of the grandparents’ home. But the ’20s were relatively good times, and the young author got a high-school education. Surprisingly, his grandfather, a family embarrassment because he made his living as a street beggar and was the focus of loud, invective-filled family arguments, revealed that a guilty conscience over past injustices to Bernstein’s mother had prompted him to provide the tickets to America. With the Great Depression, family fortunes nosedived, and Bernstein’s plans for higher education ended when his father stole his and his mother’s savings. The author beat up his father and persuaded his mother to flee with him to New York, where his two older brothers helped them settle in Brooklyn. In time, his odious father rejoined them, and the author ran into his eccentric grandfather, who was plying his trade on the streets of New York. Odd family members move in and out of the narrative, and Bernstein inserts episodes from their struggles into his own. Life took a turn for the better when he married his beloved Ruby and took a job as a script reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But for his much put-upon mother, full of disappointed expectations and longings, the dream of a good life in America never materialized. When she discovered that she had been supported for years by the takings of a beggar whose earlier gift she had never been able to repay, she died of a stroke. After her funeral, Bernstein never saw his father again.
A harsh story so filled with anger and bad feeling that reading is tough going.