FIRST GENERATION: Oral Histories of Twentieth-Century American Immigrants by June Namias

FIRST GENERATION: Oral Histories of Twentieth-Century American Immigrants

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Whether they came in 1905 or 1975 the first years were hard. Whether they crossed the ocean to find pan e lavoro (bread and work), to avoid conscription in the Russian or Turkish armies, or because war and political upheaval drove them from Estonia or Vietnam, their Americanization was difficult and partial. That is the only overall conclusion possible from these oral histories--reminiscences really--compiled by Cambridge researcher Namias. ""Each represents only his own life,"" notes Robert Coles who supplies an introduction, but the memories of dislocation, loneliness, and hardship recur within the three broad chronological periods (1900-1929; 1930-1945; 1946-the present) in which Namias has grouped them. There are exceptions. For some the transition was smooth, even exhilarating: the Estonian boy who arrived in North Dakota in 1949 became a scholar and physicist; the young Indian researcher who works on Route 128, Massachusetts, talks vaguely of going back in 1980 or '81--but tentatively only: ""I am not saying that we have got a plane ticket."" More typical is the Jewish boy who arrived from Russian Poland in 1912: ""I see a butcher advertised. He wants a boy to work, he should pluck chickens."" Or the young man who arrived from Macedonia, also in 1912, and was dumbfounded by a banana--""We didn't know how to eat it. We'd never had bananas."" Lest anyone think that recent immigrants automatically have it better, Namias includes the story of Ki who arrived from Korea in 1973 (""I came here and I bought Pinto car"") and has since tried suicide in the ""heaven country."" The aspirations and disappointments reflected here are very moving, and Namias approaches her people--nearly 30 in all--with great tact.

Pub Date: June 30th, 1978
Publisher: Beacon