Another intelligent and companionable book from Rubin (An Honorable Estate, 2001, etc.), a family story “to try to understand who my father’s family were, and what they meant for and about me.”
Rubin’s grandfather Hymen, born in 1862, came to the US and settled (“probably in 1886”) in Charleston, South Carolina, where he and his wife produced a family of four boys and three girls, one of them the author’s father. Disaster struck, however, in 1902, when Hymen—a small merchandiser—suffered a heart attack and couldn’t work, leaving the family destitute and his wife the sole caregiver for seven children. There was no alternative but charity, including having the three younger boys sent to an orphanage where for a few years they could be safely provided for. Hymen lived, not well, nine more years, his wife ten, but the children—as each finished elementary school—went straight to work to bring in money. The family’s indigence and near collapse, though, Rubin emphasizes, was a frightening and humiliating thing that marked all the children and did as much as anything to shape their lives and characters. And what characters they were—intelligent, dutiful, hard-working, never self-pitying, all of them, one way or another, self-made. Only one sister married, and not well, though the lives of all were long and full. Two uncles became newspaper editors, and the third, also a journalist, was briefly successful as a playwright—and remained almost as fascinating to the young Rubin as he is to the reader. Rubin’s father was a successful electrical merchant, but illness, in the 1930s, sent him into a new career too interesting to be told about here.
A family album so deftly and perfectly done—with not an instant of longueur—that not only do the people come alive, but so do their time and place as Rubin again proves himself one of the finest chroniclers of the American past.