A straightforward romanticization of the Jewish immigrant experience, from shtetl to tenement.
Cabral (Islands of Recall, 2007, etc.) delves into the life of the poor and struggling on two continents. A hardworking Jewish family lives in the Pale of Settlement, a region in Poland established by Catherine the Great for the confinement of her Jewish subjects. Though life isn’t easy or comfortable, the Rebakh family finds solace in one another. However, the eldest daughter, Esther, finds that her heart lies outside the family unit with Chaim, the son of a not-quite-trustworthy storekeeper. When the Czar conscripts Chaim into the army (a veritable death sentence for most soldiers), he flees to America, promising to use Esther’s substantial dowry to prepare a new life for his bride-to-be. Esther follows him some time later and discovers that the land of opportunity can also be the land of hardship and heartbreak. The eyes of the sheltered girl from the shtetl are opened through discussions of anarchy, politics and unionization. Cabral doesn’t delve too deeply into Esther’s psyche; rather, she uses the character as a vehicle to examine the joy and despair of those who traveled to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Esther begins working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where locked doors and a carelessly tossed cigarette result in a tragic end for many underpaid employees. Cabral’s sensitive, shocking description of that event, with women and men jumping from the building to avoid being burned alive—and even mercifully helping others hasten death—is unforgettable. This easy read, with its shades of Fiddler on the Roof marriage bartering and Ragtime industrialization, is both fluid and rich with history, but it’s the vivid depiction of tragedy that truly makes it worth reading.
Through dialect and detail, Cabral makes it easy to see both the Old World and the New through an immigrant’s eyes.