At once lyrical and heartbreaking, Hershon’s third novel (Swimming, 2001, etc.) follows a young Jewish bride as she leaves the refinement of Berlin for the wilds of 1860s Santa Fe.
Eva Frank’s journey doesn’t begin on the boat to America. Her real story originates a few years earlier when she and older sister Henriette sit for Heinrich, a painter commissioned to create their portraits. Eva is drawn to him despite his blandly anti-Semitic sentiments (he assures her that if they marry no one will suspect she’s a Jew), and their association leads (or so Eva blames herself) to the death of her beloved sister during childbirth. Abraham Shein, in Germany to find a bride, woos young Eva, or at least offers her an opportunity for escape, or atonement, or self-abasement—something to take her away from paralyzing guilt. The aptly named Abraham is a large, forceful figure, full of charm and bluster and owner of a thriving mercantile business in Santa Fe. He promises her the moon (in the form of an elegant home to display her wedding china and linen), but after the arduous trip across the plains, she arrives at a small, dark adobe house. Hershon creates a finely nuanced portrait of their marriage—Eva, politely contemptuous of the state in which she’s forced to live, Abraham, glib, guilty and self-righteous, and yet the two love, or at least desperately need the other. As Eva suffers a number of failed pregnancies, Abraham becomes more indebted to the gambling table and local bordello, and their downfall is imminent. Hershon’s large cast of supporting players—Santa Fe’s French bishop and his grimacing flock of nuns, the other German Jewish merchants prospering and creating a community—and her graceful description of the desert form a narrative of outsiders pitted against a giant landscape. Amidst it all stands little Eva, determined to make a life for herself.
A beautifully written tale of small sufferings and redemptions.