A portrait of immigrant life in 1920s Chicago, focused on a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age, yields mixed results in short story writer Wineberg’s (Second Language, 2005) first novel.
Life in America for young, artistically inclined Lena Czernitski proves terribly difficult after her family flees violence in 1922 Russia, where her grandfather was murdered at the dinner table and people on the street chanted, “Peace, land and bread. Kill Jews and save Russia.” Arriving in Chicago at age 10, Lena writes lists of her fears, worrying at first about her safety and never learning English, evolving over six years to despair that she’ll never be happy again. Wineberg heaps endless tsuris, or troubles as the family calls them in Yiddish, upon Lena, her older brother, Simon, and her parents. A new hardship arises in almost every early chapter, including a lecherous relative, the death of a child, an anti-Semitic schoolteacher who threatens to fail Lena and mysterious strife between her hardworking parents. There are strong scenes of Lena in conversation with her father, who supports her talent for drawing but whose goodness is in constant question. Lena’s disgust with her mother’s pessimism, grief and need to keep secrets drives her to take risks to find happiness, and she does, dating a boy named Max and declaring that as an artist, “I wanted to rip open the world.” But Wineberg has Lena tell her story in the moment rather than in retrospect, devoting too little to Lena’s thoughts and reflections on her life. Weighed down in key moments by clichéd language, the book becomes an unfortunate series of repetitive scenes rather than a unified whole.
This promising first novel stumbles too often for its young narrator to come fully to life.