Category Archives: Coming of age story

Dear Sandra Dallas,

True Sisters

True Sisters

Thank you for True Sisters.  As a new member of Women Writing the West, I read it to prepare to attend that organization’s 19th annual conference where both you and I would receive Willa Awards. When we met, I told you how much I enjoyed your stirring novel, but there wasn’t time to tell you why. There are several reasons. While reading it, I felt as if I were striding along beside your fictional Mormon women pulling a handcart through the snow on their real and perilous trek from Iowa City to Salt Lake City during the freezing winter of 1856.

Who knew from handcarts? Not this New Jersey native, still trying to fill in the canyon-sized gaps in her knowledge of western history. But I soon learned

Handcart

Handcart

that these flimsy contraptions designed to carry things and to be open to the elements were the cash-poor pioneers’ covered wagons and all that the Mormon Church could afford. The few novels I’ve read featuring Mormons have been written by lapsed Mormons. Not surprisingly most Mormons they’ve written about are also of the lapsed variety, but in your acknowledgements you explain that you are not a Mormon, and in your novel the women and men pushing those puny uncured wood carts up snow-covered mountains and across frozen rivers are not lapsed.

Most are true believers including Louisa who considers her husband, their leader, to be god’s spokesperson. Jessie, who loves farm life, is tired of the dried-up

Mormon Missionaries in England

Mormon Missionaries in England

church and farmland of England, so she finds the young Mormon religion and fertile American soil appealing. Nannie and Ella, two Scottish sisters, are also drawn to the new American religion. Ella is swayed by the Mormons’ claim that theirs is the “pure religion Our Lord founded so long ago” and Nannie is persuaded by the rhetoric of an engaging young male missionary. Something of a cynic, I was struck by both the effectiveness of the missionaries’ pitch and the credulity of those who buy it. Anne, a pregnant mother, is the only one of the women you detail who is not moved to become a Mormon. Nonetheless Anne feels compelled to leave her home in England to follow her husband and children to America after he sells their family business without consulting her. Before reading True Sisters, I had no idea that Mormon missionaries proselytized abroad, but they did, and so these women and their families are not only pioneers, but emigrants as well.

And emigrants are just a vowel away from immigrants whose stories I know, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that their losses begin on the transatlantic crossing when Anne’s young daughter falls ill and dies. The loss of a child is unbearable and yet must be borne. This little girl’s death is just the first of many losses suffered on this terrible journey. Like most emigrants, they bring with them a few precious items from the homes they left, but to make room in the small carts for the aged and infirm, foodstuffs, and other necessities, they repeatedly have to leave behind their treasured mementos in piles beside the trail.

But there are far worse losses. Many fall victim to hunger, illness, cold, and injury. Near the end of their trek, those still alive are stacking not only belongings,

Woman Pulling Handcart

Woman Pulling Handcart

but bodies “like logs in the snow.” Death is gender blind, but childbearing is not. Pulling a hand cart is especially hard if you’re pregnant. So is starving. And breastfeeding. And what about giving birth in the snow by the side of that same handcart?  The now verboten Mormon practice of “celestial marriage” or polygamy was not gender blind either. The prospect of being taken as a sister-wife or having one’s husband take a sister-wife haunts the women. A few live seemingly contentedly as sister-wives, but being a sister-wife is no woman’s first choice.

In Memoriam Brigham Young

In Memoriam Brigham Young

Because many of the problems the travelers face are the fault of their leaders who are all men, you make it clear without being in the least didactic that female leaders might have made different decisions and that patriarchy itself is flawed. Even so True Sisters is not an anti-Mormon screed. And thanks to your careful reading of archival material, your sense of balance, detailed description, and convincing dialogue, the story you tell about this awful journey is ultimately uplifting. We see the women bond to help one another and their men bear the painful experiences they share. These are tough, smart, and resilient women, true sisters to one another and true heroes to us all. And you give them powerful voices to tell of their experiences so they can take their deserved places in the pantheon of western heroes and so they can inform and inspire transplanted writers like me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Western novel

Dear Sherman Alexie,

Reservation Blues

Reservation Blues

Thank you for Reservation Blues which was recommended to me by a friend who knows I’m researching the Yakama Nation. I was a little skeptical about how a book about the Spokanes would illuminate the Yakama Nation, but I figure both Washington tribes share gripes with history and maybe, like Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, their many differences are not as great as their similarities. In your moving and marvelous novel, one of the marvels you conjure up for the reader by way of magical realism is Robert Johnson coming back from the dead to bring the blues to the Spokane Indian Reservation. He inspires Thomas-Builds-the Fire, a young tribal storyteller whose stories “climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched,” and two young friends, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, to form a band they name Coyote Spring. We root for Coyote Spring to succeed, make them rich and famous, and liberate them from the rez. They could use a break. Victor was orphaned early, abused, and lives to bully, gamble, drink, and fantasize about money. His sidekick Junior, who’s supposed to be pretty smart, dropped out of college and drives a Bureau of Indian Affairs water truck on the rez when he’s not drinking and bullying. These two may be drunk, disorderly, undereducated, and violent, but, like Thomas, they’re also musically talented, loyal, courageous, generous, humorous, and eager for love.

Tribal Storyteller

Tribal Storyteller

 Audiences flock to hear Coyote Spring, but still, the band fails. Its failure is a reenactment of the betrayal of Native Americans by whites. The treacherous executives of the recording studio are named after the generals Wright and Sheridan who orchestrated long ago battles in one of which the tribe’s horses were slain, insuring that they would have trouble defending themselves, and offering unfair treaties. The band’s failure is also due, perhaps, to the fact that Coyote Springs is not a real “Indian” band. The blues and rock ‘n’ roll they play are not indigenous to them, but borrowed from another oppressed group. Even Robert Johnson’s efforts to help the band ultimately fail, perhaps because his own people still need help themselves.

Slaughter of Spokane Tribal Horses

Slaughter of Spokane Tribal Horses

Pundits and professors often lament the fact that so many Americans are ignorant of our own history. It is noteworthy that each band member, no matter how drunk or damaged, knows the tribe’s history, knows the details of hopeless battles fought and lost, treaties broken, spirits crushed, identities erased. Each of them knows this litany of losses, knows he once had land, a living language, music, and religion, and lots of life-sustaining salmon in clean and close-by rivers. And Native Americans do not overlook our entwined histories any more than Palestinians ignore the historic tangle that underlies their relationship with Israel. Your novel is enriched by the way you work tribal history and culture into every layer of your story. You capture tribal culture as it is: the drinking, the gaming, the perpetual hunger, the barely habitable homes, the complex relationships between the Indian and the white man, not to mention the white woman, and the overwhelming hopelessness.

But you also include vestiges of the tribe’s more vibrant and viable past. One of these vestiges is Big Mom, a modern medicine woman who embodies that past in her large frame and even larger heart. She uses their own past to strengthen the inhabitants of the rez. At the end when Thomas, his girlfriend, and her sister finally leave what’s left of Thomas’s ancestral home for Spokane, their spirits are buoyed by the presence of the historically significant “shadow horses”  resurrected and galloping beside their truck.

You’re a poet too, so each chapter in this book is prefaced by a song/poem that sets the reader up for the events to come. My favorite is the one that introduces the final chapter in which one band member is buried and another leaves the rez for good. The poem, a lament for the many who do not survive reservation life and a call to action, begins, “I saw ten people die before I was ten years old/And I knew how to cry before I was ever born/Wake alive, alive, wake alive, alive . . .” Hell, I know families whose pets live better than the kids born on the res. A lot better. And since I’ve moved to Washington, I’m aware of this inequality in a way that I wasn’t in New Jersey. Perhaps that’s because here only a few generations have elapsed since we waged those battles and broke those treaties. The wounds still bleed, the losses still hurt, and in Reservation Blues it seems as if those on the losing side still suffer from PTSD while we winners enjoy amnesia.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

With help from storytellers like you, we Americans face the genocide that, like slavery, is part of our history. Your stories in The New Yorker and your award-winning books for kids and adults arm the survivors struggling on the reservations while informing the rest of us how America looks to its victims. That you manage to make this terrible mirror an engrossing and memorable read is nothing short of miraculous.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Native American Novel, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her

Your collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, made me nostalgic. Yunior, the young Dominican narrator of the first tale, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” reminds me of my community college students in Jersey City where I used to teach.  Yunior is, to hear him tell it, “. . . not a bad guy.  . .  . I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” And like a few of my students, Yunior goes on to write about the especially big mistake he made when he cheated on his devoted girlfriend Magda and she found out. She attributed his infidelity to what she and her girlfriends believe: all Dominican men are cheaters, a view shared by several of my female Dominican students who sometimes wrote about similar mistakes their Dominican boyfriends made.  The matter of sexual monogamy comes up repeatedly in the stories and, to your credit, you seek no simple resolution.

Yunior finds visits to his country of origin restorative no matter how poor and corrupt it is, so he hopes he and Magda can repair things on a trip to Santo

Dominican Scene

Dominican Scene

Domingo. Instead, their vacation only serves to reveal their different expectations and needs. On the story’s final post-break-up page, Yunior, now dating again, gets a letter from Magda telling him of her new boyfriend. This missive “hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything.”

Star Trek Grenade

Star Trek Grenade

After reading it, Yunior recalls ruefully how, at the end of their sad holiday, he was still insisting to Magda that their relationship could work if they tried. It’s the optimism and determination of the youthful immigrants I taught that I miss as well as their insider’s take on the vibrant lives they lived right under my nose but not always on my radar.

My voyeuristic nostalgia for proximity to the experiences and personalities of my immigrant students grew as I read the other stories. There’s one about two young brothers experiencing their first snowstorm from the dubious vantage point of their isolated and ghettoized tenement apartment next to a landfill. The troubled state of their parents’ marriage and the cold cruelty of white flight are reinforced by the strange freezing whiteness of the deepening snow.  Each story has a slightly different take on the same theme: Yunior’s lifelong struggle to come of age as a bi-cultural writer, professor, son, and lover.

But Yunior is different from many of my students in that he is linguistically gifted in two languages which he blends in sentences that are literate and witty. Here’s Yunior’s rant that opens the final story in the collection, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” “Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever open his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! . . .

Telltale Clue

Telltale Clue

Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived it . . . . but your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; . . .” Here you demonstrate your mastery of slang and colloquialism in two languages in perfectly grammatical and correctly spelled English befitting the savvy, culturally aware college prof that Yunior is. And here you enable me, a reader unfamiliar with three of the four Spanish words in the passage, to get what you mean without a dictionary. Like the French word fiancée, near the top of the excerpt, these four Spanish words are not italicized, probably because although they’re foreign to me, they’re not foreign to Yunior. And folks lucky enough to be bilingual like Yunior turn to their home language for personal and highly charged topics like their love lives. Finally, in this quote, Yunior displays the self-deprecating wit that reveals self-understanding, a kind of comprehension I’m partial to. It didn’t surprise me that by the end of this story and the book Yunior resumes writing and, after reading his opening pages of what probably became one of the stories in this book, he reports that for once he doesn’t want to burn them or give up writing forever.

Oops!

Oops!

You’ve given us a portrait of the writer as a Dominican-American young man, and I love it. I only wish that you’d written it before I retired from teaching so I could have shared it with my students. Instead I have to be satisfied with reading it for my own purposes which include learning that sometimes it is our mistakes, not our triumphs, that make the best stories.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Uncategorized

Dear Art Spiegelman,

Maus I

Maus I

 If my mother and father were still alive I think your Pulitzer Prize winning Maus books recounting your father’s life before, during, and after the

Maus II

Maus II

Holocaust would astound them more than the ten-dollar movie ticket, a black president, or cell phones. It’s not your subject matter that would dumbfound them, but your chosen format. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began are what my parents disparaged as comic books and forbade me to read or buy.

Forbidden Fruit

Forbidden Fruit

My mother, a former school teacher, was sure that reading comics would instantly deplete my vocabulary and distract me from reading “real” books. My father refused to allow even one thin dime of his hard-earned money, including my allowance, to be squandered on “that trash.” Of course, my curiosity was piqued, and I devoured the adventures of Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica at the home of my next-door neighbor with that furtive lust kids reserve for the forbidden.

            So why didn’t I read Maus I when it came out in 1986? It got great reviews, earned you a Pulitzer, and was responsible for the transformation of the much-maligned comic book into the graphic novel. I’m not sure what kept me from your book, but I suspect that I didn’t think I would assign it to my students, almost none of whom were Jewish or European and, after reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t care to read Holocaust stories. Even as an adult, I found them terrifying and depressing in spite of the fact that back in 1986, I thought anti-Semitism was over.

Jews as Mice

Jews as Mice

Now, a quarter of a century later, I know anti-Semitism lives on and I decided to read your Maus books. I found them fascinating and am so grateful to you for making the effort you describe and for being so forthcoming about your own thorny relationship with your dad. I’m also very grateful for those black-and-white drawings. You are an acclaimed visual artist and by depicting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, you somehow condense our stereotypes of the animals and the humans and remind us of them without having to constantly reword or qualify them. You are not afraid to evoke those stereotypes either, and the fact that they’re politically incorrect does not detract from their effectiveness.

Thus your medium leaves you free to concentrate on what happens when your characters converse and what is going on in the background. Your

Yinglish Word

Yinglish Word

father’s speech with its overtones of Yiddish and Polish is familiar to me even though my parents’ English was uninflected. It becomes clear in your dad’s transactions with you that his life experiences have left their mark on his everyday acts: eating, sleeping, talking, managing money, and relating to those he loves. To be a survivor is no cakewalk. So it follows that to be, like you, the offspring of two Holocaust survivors, one of whom killed herself, isn’t either.

Although I am very glad I read Maus I and II, I am also glad it didn’t take me too long. I didn’t want to linger in those trains and trucks or at Auschwitz or even in your dad and Mala’s kitchen in Rego Park or their cabin in the Catskills. Reading your books is a little like looking at scans of one’s broken bones or a suspicious cluster of cells. One wants to know the worst and yet one doesn’t, so one looks quickly. I did not dwell on your illustrations but scanned them as I read the dialogue in the balloons and in the rectangular spaces enclosing your dad’s narrative interjections.

While reading I was very aware of your scribbling notes or taping your dad’s answers to your questions. I share with you the desire to preserve the past, especially the Jewish past, as it was actually experienced by those who lived it. That’s why I relied heavily on oral histories of Seattle Jews archived by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society at the University of Washington when researching material for The Bones and the Book.

Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize

I suspect that my parents would have to admit that by telling your father’s story so graphically, you have done us all a great service. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear President Obama,

Dreams from My Father

Dreams from My Father

To celebrate your winning a second term in the White House, I read your memoir Dreams from My Father. I enjoyed it very much not only because I’m a supporter of yours or because you’re president, but because your family history and early adventures make a great American story and you tell it clearly and with grace. Your book is subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance, and in the Introduction you explain that you opted to tell the story of your life rather than to compose an essay on race relations and civil rights. I’m grateful you made that choice. I’ll take a story over a lecture any time. Part of what makes your memoir moving is your candor and insight into how you were shaped by seemingly random events in the lives of your grandparents and parents. Their experiences took place long ago and far away and you learned of them through stories and, in turn, they sparked the longer story that you embrace as your inheritance.

Stories glow throughout this book, sometimes as brightly as my halogen desk lamp and other times dimly in the background like distant stars. You learn ofHalogen Desk lamp

Halogen Desk lamp

your mostly absent father through stories that were “compact, apocryphal, told in rapid succession in the course of one evening

Distant Star

Distant Star

then packed away for months, sometimes years, in my family’s memory.”  The story of your mom and dad’s interracial romance and marriage is another one you weave into an heirloom American tapestry. And so it goes. Everyone in your family, everyone you meet, has a story and you share these so your reader comes to appreciate your ability and willingness to listen to and understand other people. Contradictory as it seems, your own story is not all about you.

I admire your dogged efforts to know your elusive father and to include him in your life and your life story even though you discover him to be less than perfect. Your attention to the stories of others, especially your relatives, makes me wish I’d paid closer attention to stories my mother told and probed her for details before it was too late. She rarely discussed her family history or her own early life except to say that on hot summer nights she and her brother slept on their Newark, NJ fire escape, that this brother died in WWI,

Poppy in Flanders Field

Poppy in Flanders Field

and that after their mother died, their father remarried and this stepmother was also dead. When I was about ten years old, I asked what these women died of, and my mother replied tersely, “He worked them both to death.” This Simon Legree was hard for me to reconcile with the devoted grandfather, or Beanpa as I called him, who lived with us. He was my Monopoly and Canasta opponent, the man who walked me to and from school until I was old enough to go by myself, the same benefactor who bought me a white organdy party dress embroidered with baby blue flowers. I deeply regret not ever pressing my mother for details even if they threatened my little-girlish world view. I might have understood her better.

You make complex concepts and experiences vividly accessible without oversimplifying or condescending to your readers. For example, when you describe your early inattentiveness to the fact that you are biracial, you say, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me ─that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk─ barely registered in my mind.” When, a few paragraphs later, you introduce the term miscegenation, the reader is prepared to follow your one paragraph history of interracial marriage in America. This ability to express complexity clearly and interestingly to a wide audience is crucial to presidents, and they don’t all have it.

Black Writer

Black Writer

Your communicative competence helped during your tenure as a community organizer, another part of your life I especially enjoyed learning about. Reading of how you struggled and occasionally failed and how you admitted each failure and learned from it made me more tolerant of my own struggles as a teacher and, more recently, as a writer.  Those same communication skills and your Kenyan ancestry enable you to feel at home in a variety of international settings and in several languages. You are truly a man of the world, the whole world.

You self-identify as a black American, so it’s fair for me to compare your coming of age story with some others I’ve read by other talented black male writers who came before you and before

March on Washington    1963

March on Washington 1963

major civil rights legislation in this country: Frederick Douglas, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Claude Brown. Like their prose, yours occasionally reflects the references and rhythms of the black preacher. But, you are not enraged, hungry, addicted, or given to religious extremism. Your fleeing father did not leave you without family, and your mother, stepfather and grandparents did not mistreat you but nurtured you instead. You hardly feel invisible or unmanned. On the contrary, your bicultural, biracial, multilingual, splintered extended family and somewhat nomadic upbringing have made you strong and given you the perspectives of both outsider and insider wherever you happen to be. And you’re a terrific writer.  I can’t wait to read the books you write when your term as president ends. Meanwhile, thank you for this one.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Memoir, Uncategorized

Dear Shalom Auslander,

Foreskin's Lament

Foreskin’s Lament

After reading two books by and about women who left Hasidic communities, I wanted to read a male’s account of forsaking that way of life, so I read your memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. I expected your perspective to be different not just because you had the chutzpah to title your book thusly, but also because you are a riotous humorist whose outbursts in Tablet, The New York Times, and The New Yorker have often made me grin.

I wasn’t disappointed. Your account of your introduction to God in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York where you were raised is a

God

God

carnival ride of blasphemy. There you were taught early on by your parents and teachers that God was a strong and powerful man who liked the people only when they obeyed him. “But when we didn’t obey what he had commanded, he hated us. Some days he hated us so much he killed us; other days he let other people kill us. We call these days holidays. On Purim we remembered how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover we remembered how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Chanukah we remembered how the Greeks tried to kill us.”

You illustrate God’s disproportionate punishments for disobedience by reminding us that he punished Sarah, “a woman who would giggle,” by making her barren. And he severely chastised Job, because, on a bad day, the poor man dared to ask, “Why?” Then, after Moses escaped Egypt and searched the desert for forty long years to find the Promised Land, God killed him at the border because four decades ago Moses had “hit a rock.” For a smart and sensitive little boy, all this was hard to digest. What you took away from it was that the “people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him too.”

Scared Child

Scared Child

Not Kosher!

Not Kosher!

You let the reader know that, since the death of his first born son, your father is perpetually pissed off, and often drunk. Even though, as a kid, you understood the underlying reasons for his rage, you were disturbed and helpless when he routinely hauled your older brother down to the basement and beat him bloody. So was your mom. To keep the peace that always threatened to disrupt Sabbath meals, you did impersonations, staged spills, and posed questions. But when a classmate’s dad died of a heart attack, you regretted that your own father was not chosen by God instead. And when the rabbi reminded your class that until a boy is thirteen, his sins are held against his father, you began to deliberately (and hilariously) violate Jewish laws in secret hoping to do in your own dad by snacking on non-kosher candy bars. Given that your God and your father both have serious anger issues, it’s no wonder that your own rage blazes through the pages of this book.

You leave Monsey with enough anger to fuel several novels. Part of your memoir’s complicated wave of humor and fury arises from the fact that although you have separated yourself from the Monsey community and moved with your wife, son, and dog, to a rural town near Woodstock, New York, you have not stopped wrangling with God. You have not become an atheist or forsworn Judaism and all Jewish customs. I find it amazing that you still believe in the existence of God even though you continue to insist he’s a “prick.” This is a theological compromise I find fascinating. It’s particularly so in your acknowledgements, amusingly entitled, Whom to Kill, where you express concern that God will kill you for writing such a blasphemous book and beg him not to kill you or your wife or son or dog, but instead to focus his homicidal wrath on those who helped you write the book! You are joking here, but throughout this coming of (r)age story, you make it clear that  you believe God exists but you can’t stand him. Likewise you can’t stand those who take the Torah literally. When, after much consideration, you and your wife have your son circumcised, but not ritually, even this most Jewish of acts strikes another blow to the wedge that distances you from your parents. Their faith may be uncompromising but their love is conditional.

The Doctor Is In

The Doctor Is In

Given all your fears, your rage, and your history, I’m glad you see a shrink. Shrinks have it in their power to re-parent us so that we can overcome some of our worst fears

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

Hope A Tragedy A Novel

and avoid repeating some of our biological parents’ worst mistakes. But don’t get too “normal” because all your fears and fury, the lousy parenting and religious mishegas you endured have forged you into a witty and insightful writer. I can’t wait to read your novel, Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Humorous fiction, Jewish fiction, Memoir

Dear Myla Goldberg,

The False Friend

The False Friend

Thank you for your stunning novel, The False Friend.  I read it while I was in a neck brace recovering from cervical fractures and craving distraction from my initial failure to sleep very long sitting up. The delayed reaction of thirty-one-year-old Celia to her part in the death of her childhood friend Djuna back in the eighties drew me in at once. Djuna and Celia, leaders of their clique of five eleven-year-old girls, mercilessly criticize and/or exclude the other three

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

until the afternoon when Djuna disappears. On the way home from school, all five girls take a forbidden road bordered by a woods, a forest primeval right out of Grimm. In the heat of one of her stormy fights with Celia, Djuna stomps off the road into the thicket. Infuriated, Celia follows while the others wait. Celia returns alone. Djuna is never seen again. Has Djuna gotten into a stranger’s brown car as all the girls, including Celia, attest to the police and parents at the time? Or has she fallen down an abandoned well where Celia left her to die as Celia insists after a kind of epiphany two decades later?

Celia’s shocking revelation took me right back to my own long ago girlhood. Were any surprises lurking there? Had I, like Celia and Djuna, once been

Mean Girls

Mean Girls

what today we think of as a “mean girl?” Had I been a victim of mean girls? Had I been part of a close but volatile best friendship like Celia and Djuna’s when I was eleven? I honestly don’t recall ever picking on another kid, but I do recall being ridiculed one endless summer in sleepover camp. The very first night when I stripped down to my undershirt, I learned that my busty bra-wearing bunkmates had no compassion for late bloomers. They taunted me mercilessly. Somehow, I survived even though, in addition to being flat chested, I was neither pretty nor athletic nor adventuresome like Celia. These traits made her a leader in spite of her mean streak. By eleven I had friends, but none close enough to fight with. Besides, my parents fought so much that I became a chronic peace maker.

Peace Maker

Peace Maker

Like many of my classmates at a Passaic High School reunion I once attended, Celia has changed. As an adult it is her kindness and generosity that make it so hard for her loved ones to believe she might have ever harbored a mean let alone murderous impulse. So at thirty-one, her efforts to confirm her new insight into her role in Djuna’s death drive her to reexamine her relationship with not only her childhood friends, but also with Huck, her boyfriend of ten years, her parents and her brother. Inevitably these efforts change her relationship with her adult self and with those she loves. When she dares to face the implications and repercussions of her actions, even belatedly, she can better appreciate and understand who she has become and that may free her to change. Some of us turn to therapists to help us develop fresh insights into ourselves and bring about changes, but Celia does it pretty much alone in one harrowing week, and your account of it is filled with the suspense of a good mystery or adventure story.

Your novel is so rewarding not only because your story of a woman at a turning point in her life is inherently interesting but because you are a superb writer, reconfiguring

No Bully Zone

No Bully Zone

potent archetypes, themes, and settings to keep us pasted to each page. Like that earlier little girl in the woods en route to grandma’s, Celia and her girlfriends are both vulnerable and powerful, their eleven-year-old bodies suddenly playing host to hormones their tween brains have yet to understand. Without once using the word “bully,” you shed light on that age-old archetype too, making readers see it as complex and often subconscious behavior that it is possible to outgrow. I so appreciate your avoidance of psychobabble!

Instead, your prose approaches the poetic, making us experience with Celia the busy urban intersection where, looking at the curb, she has her revelation: “Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wingtips and pumps.” When you want to make clear the appeal Djuna and Celia had for the girls who sought them out, you tell us: “At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.” Your novel includes many lengthy descriptive passages detailing Celia’s hometown and the house where she grew up and where her folks still live. Had you not described these so brilliantly that they somehow conjure up the reader’s origins as well, many editors would have insisted that you shorten them. But that would have been a travesty. Celia’s relationship with her past is rooted in remembering and these specifics help her and your readers to understand what she recalls. Your use of description as a memory aid will inspire me as I tackle my next book.

Thank you for another superb novel!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Anouk Markovitz,

I Am Forbidden

Thank you for I Am Forbidden. It can’t have been easy for you, a born and raised Satmar Hasidic, to write this astonishing saga that spans 70 years and two continents, two worlds really. One is our modern world where, in an orgy of free will, we confront a myriad of choices about everything from what to

GuidingGoodChoices

eat, wear, read, and believe to what to teach our children. The other world is a medieval theocracy where a manipulative rabbi manufactures a convenient miracle and preys on the fears of his traumatized congregants to coerce them into unquestioning obedience to outdated laws. Unlike the critics who have praised I Am Forbidden for its evenhandedness, I see it as a beautifully written and imagined condemnation of the Satmar Hasidism for what amounts to fanaticism fostered by deceit, ignorance, and desperate longing for the families killed in Satmar, Hungary during WWII.  To me your novel is a poignant critique of fundamentalism.

But it’s more interesting than most such critiques because you turn to history to explain the origin and staying power of Satmar Hasidism. And you focus not only on how

Sperm

women suffer in this community, but also on how Satmar beliefs affect the intimate lives of men. You open your story during World War II in Satmar where a devout teenaged boy has a wet dream in spite of having lashed his hands and feet to the bed frame to prevent him from committing this sin. Semen is only for procreation  to speed the repopulation of this community decimated by the Nazis.  A rabbi has decreed that “He who emits seed deserves death.” Decades later this same taboo makes it sinful for another male character to have a test to determine the viability of his sperm after his wife has not conceived during ten years of marriage. Not content with supervising men’s emissions and women’s menstrual cycles, the rabbis mandate positions and sexual pleasure limiting the former to missionary and forbidding the latter.

You’re generous to your characters when they endure, indeed, demand this way of life because you show how most of them suffer from what,

today, we know as post-traumatic stress. You describe one little boy watching his toddler sister killed with a pitchfork inches from him and hearing his mother’s final screams as she too is killed. A little girl sees her pregnant mother shot down while trying to board a train and finds her father tied to a post and left to die after being tortured by the dreaded Iron Guard. It’s not surprising that these two orphans grow up desperate to believe that if they are very, very good, when the Messiah comes, they will be reunited with their pierced, shot, and castrated relatives who will be whole and healthy once again.  You don’t blame the survivors and this reader doesn’t either.

Well, I do, a little. The small girl, who never forgets watching her parents die at the hands of Jew haters, grows up in the Satmar community where her father arranges her marriage to the young man who recalls seeing his sister impaled and hearing his mother’s dying screams. In spite of the love these two have for one another and in spite of their faith, they run afoul of the regressive Satmar reproductive rules with predictably tragic results. It is not their faith in God that is the problem, but their faith in these rules. This misplaced faith is a kind of mass delusion brought about by the trauma of seeing their parents and community cruelly annihilated. This delusion flourishes in mandated ignorance and fears of modernity and masquerades as faith in God. The Satmar are like children who seek safety under the bed while their house burns down around them. If they don’t look at the fire, it cannot destroy them.

Another of your characters, the young daughter of the nocturnal emitter, suffers a brutal beating from her father, now a rabbi himself, for riding a bicycle on the Sabbath.

Whip

Not surprisingly she grows up to question rabbinic authority, to read forbidden books, and, when she reaches marriageable age, to leave her home, family, and the Satmar community in Paris for the United States. Here she goes to college and becomes a film maker and professor living alone in a New York studio apartment and a country home. Does she miss her family? Yes. Would she return is she were allowed? No. Can she live a rewarding and meaningful life estranged from her family of origin and childless and, perhaps, manless as well? Yes.

It’s scary to think of an entire community of PTSD sufferers just across the bridge from Manhattan and determined to remain separate from the evil influences they think are rampant only in the outside world. At a time when globalization, scientific breakthroughs, climate change, and wars waged in the name of religion are changing the way we all live, these people’s muddled medievalism is ill-timed and even dangerous. Like many other fundamentalists, the Satmar Hasids seem ill-equipped for life in the diverse democracy that took them in. I admire the courage you show in taking readers into the hearts and minds of the Satmar and then taking us out again. You make that journey memorable.

Firecracker Exploding

There is a lengthy, complicated tale I want to tell, and in I Am Forbidden you show me how to make a long, complex story quick and explosive like a firecracker going off in the reader’s head. Thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, Uncategorized

Dear Anna Quindlen,

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

I just finished your memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and, of course, I loved it. I’ve always relished the way you draw on your own experiences,

Sandwich Generation

strewing your New York Times columns with first-person pronouns: “That’s what makes life so hard for women, that instead of thinking that this is the way things are, we always think it’s the way we are.” I still savor the sharp images you use. A passing jet is “a shining exclamation point in the blue sky” and women sandwiched between nurturing kids and nursing aging parents are “caregivers cubed.” Reading your personal and poignant prose once again took me back to my first encounter with your columns in the early Eighties.

NYT Logo

The New York Times seemed austere, dense, a paper for corporate types and lawyers to peruse over leisurely wife-made breakfasts. A working mom, I seldom had time to skim the front page of my local paper before leaving my kids’ egg-crusted

Man Reading Paper over Coffee

dishes on the table and tearing off to teach my community college classes. Then a female colleague recommended your column, so I read it. To my amazement, it was actually about stuff that interested me, “women’s stuff” like grocery shopping with kids, the amniocentesis dilemma, and working from home with a toddler drooling on your lap and an infant waking from a nap. I recalled a time when my comments on the student essays I read at home were punctuated by yogurt splotches when I returned them to their authors. Who knew this detail of my messy double life mattered? You did. You taught me that certain issues that mattered to me, what we now call “women’s issues,” were actually newsworthy, New York Times-worthy. Thanks to you, when menopause hit, I knew this daunting passage mattered, and I wrote a series of mysteries featuring Bel Barrett, a Kegeling, sweating amateur sleuth who tracks killers in between mood swings.

There’s more to my affinity for your memoir than my appreciation of your style and subject matter though. Your unashamed membership in the middle

Rest in Peace Middle Class

class is both refreshing and validating. In an era of victim-lit, your references to your comfortable, albeit not opulent childhood during which you were neither abused nor addicted is a relief. Your mother’s illness and death saddened you but did not destroy you and neither did being the oldest of five sibs. You went to college, married a lawyer, got several great jobs, had children, and found a way to stay home with them and still write. None of this sounds like gripping memoir-fodder, but it is when you put it out there and describe what you learned from your relatively untroubled life. In Lots of Candles, you refer to your good fortune unabashedly each time you mention your healthy kids, your happy marriage, your two homes, and, of course, your extremely rewarding work. As a result of that work, you,  a woman and a writer, both traditionally underpaid, are able to retain your place among the middle class, a cohort vanishing even as I type. Kudos and thank you for your game-changing columns, your inspiring memoir, and your engrossing novels.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg.

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Memoir

Dear Jean M. Auel,

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear was like my first date with my second husband, so good that I didn’t want it to ever end. The plight of the orphaned and homeless five-year-old Cro-Magnon girl Ayla gripped me. And the customs, rituals, and beliefs of the Neanderthals who find and adopt the child fascinated me. I read Clan in the early Eighties and got my teenaged daughter hooked on your Earth’s Children series too. But she’s not the only one with whom I shared your research-based stories of Ice Age life.

The others I introduced to your take on our prehistoric ancestors were community college students in a course called “Cultures and Values.” Most had jobs

Neanderthal Man

and/or families competing with college for their time and energy. Imagine their dismay when, after buying the book, they saw how long it was. They protested. I insisted. Of course, by our next class most had read far more than I assigned because, like my daughter and me and a zillion other readers, they were hooked. Ayal’s survival engaged them too, and your detailed descriptions of hunting, healing, mating, cooking, and worshiping astounded them. These descriptions reflect the research you did in anthropology, geology, and paleontology, and make those complex sciences accessible.

Neanderthal Cave-Croatioa

But it’s your storytelling that makes them matter. You make us realize that this tale you tell of a clan in a cave is our story, the human story, a backward glance into our very own family album. And we like who we see there or most of the family anyway. Our Ice Age ancestors weren’t the savage cave dwellers of myths and movies. Rather, most were folks very like us─ caring, familial, hard-working, and status conscious with customs and beliefs rooted in survival, tradition and faith. But like some of our relatives, Neanderthals weren’t all paragons. They were capable of envy and all were condemned by their brains’ structure to an overreliance on historical memory and a corresponding shortsightedness about the future.

Your research-based suppositions about pre-historic male-female relationships─ women are excluded from the Clan’s worship services and must kneel to ask permission to speak to a man, serve as pack animals when the Clan is on the move, care for children, gather and prepare food, AND submit to sex whenever a passing man indicates a “need”─ generated heated discussions. Many of us recognized vestiges of these patriarchal customs in our own families.

Herbs Once Used for Contraception

But my late Twentieth Century students living in the age of AIDs when it was hard to avoid sex education had a really tough time understanding how our ancestors could be so wrong about where babies come from. Clan members worship spirits and at birth each receives a totem, the spirit of an animal, from the Clan’s shaman. This protective spirit is represented by a small sculpted critter worn on a leather strip around the neck to ward off harmful spirits. For conception to happen, a man’s totem must overcome his mate’s. This totally invisible and literally out-of-body battle of two spirits has nothing to do with human biology and everything to do with the totemic spirit’s perceived prowess. Clan members make no connection between a man using a handy woman to relieve his sexual needs and the pregnancies that often result. Students were skeptical until I reminded them of how many “enlightened” and “modern” men and women are surprised to find themselves prospective parents.

Jewish Studies

Clan of the Cave Bear sensitized my students to how environment and human needs shape our culture and determine what we value. Not surprisingly, your work sensitized me in much the same way and was much in my thoughts when I finally dared look into my own family album, something I had resisted doing for at least half a lifetime. My research made me confront factors that influenced Jewish culture in Europe and then in America and see how those same factors shaped the priorities of the two people who raised me. Years later, these revelations about persecution, exile, loss, assimilation, and survival informed The Bones and the Book.  Like Ayla, Aliza Rudinsk becomes an outsider who must adapt to her new surroundings without the support of family and the security of familiar landmarks, language, and customs. And like Ayla, she wears a talisman of sorts around her neck.

Thank you for your important and catalytic research and writing.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story