Historian and novelist Slotkin (The Long Road to Antietam, 2012, etc.) writes more personally in these linked semifictional stories based on his ancestors’ immigration from Eastern Europe early in the 20th century.
Slotkin makes clear that these stories are based on a range of experiences within his own family. “The Gambler” is about a poker-playing butcher in pre–World War II Brooklyn who's still questioning his decision to emigrate in 1902 without his wife and sons and then not send for them until he felt financially ready four years later, and it sets up the challenges explored throughout the book: the impossible choices faced by immigrants like the butcher, who feels that “in winning he lost”; why some immigrants adapt while others can’t; the emotional cost of leaving one’s homeland, however inhospitable it’s become. Slotkin’s only female protagonist, sophisticated Upper West Sider Cousin Bella, is also unique in the wealth and education she enjoyed as a girl on what the immigrants here call “The Other Side.” Whether thanks to her early advantages or the steady resilience she inherited from her father, she successfully remakes herself in America after her father’s brutal murder by czarist forces during the Russian Revolution. In "Honor," by contrast, a formerly successful grain merchant fails to adapt in America, clinging to values like trust and honor that betray him once he loses the trappings of success. As if Slotkin is arguing Talmudically with himself, that same value system works to several immigrants’ advantage in the next story, "The Milkman," in which the title character defines what it is to be a mensch, a good man, whose trust and honor bring unexpected rewards to himself and others. Then comes a counterpunch to optimism, the all too relevant tragedy “Uncle Max and Cousin Yossi,” examining the permanent emotional damage caused when a 4-year-old boy is violently wrenched from his family and thought dead only to reappear months later. The humor of Slotkin’s end piece, “Greenhorn Nation: A History in Jokes,” is pointed to say the least.
Painful, riveting, personal, and powerfully universal.