When the Old West Was New

By Donna Rifkind,
who reviews regularly for Book World
Thursday, May 22, 2008


By Joanna Hershon

Ballantine. 304 pp. $25

Joanna Hershon's sinuous new novel roams away from the milieu of her two previous books, which were modern family dramas, into the territories of historical fiction and immigration literature. Hershon spins the tale of a German Jewish woman named Eva Frank who, after a hasty marriage in 1865, leaves her wealthy father's mansion in Berlin to pursue a new life among the "low mud-cake hovels" of the American West. Accompanied by her husband, Eva journeys across the ocean and then across the United States to set up housekeeping in Santa Fe, a makeshift, dirty, danger-ridden settlement that was just beginning to organize itself into a town.

While Eva's transformation from pampered European cosmopolite to Wild West frontierswoman might sound outlandish, her story is, as a matter of historical fact, not all that unusual. Hershon makes clear in the novel's "Note on Sources" that she has done research showing that a significant number of European Jews participated in the American westward migration and pioneer life of the 19th century. The most famous of these immigrants -- including Levi Strauss (from Bavaria) and Mike Goldwater (from Poland) -- made enormous fortunes as boomtown entrepreneurs in California and Arizona. Others settled with their families and flourished in Western frontier towns just as enthusiastically, if not quite as spectacularly.

Historical accuracy, though, is only the skeleton of this kind of novel, bolstering but lifeless. To make her narrative pulse, Hershon has to be sure that the emotions and sensations Eva experiences during her journey are equally vivid for the reader. This woman's story doesn't have to be true as much as it has to feel true.

And it does, beginning with the circumstances in Berlin that set Eva's voyage in motion. She is only a teenager when her dalliance with a portrait painter leads to events that cause the death of her beloved older sister. Unmoored by grief and guilt, and terrified that she might further break her parents' hearts by confessing her misconduct, she abruptly agrees to marry a family acquaintance during one of his visits home. The groom is a brash and brutish man named Abraham Shein, who had left Berlin for the United States some years ago to join his brother in a dry-goods business in Santa Fe.

Eva's decision to flee Berlin is fueled not by adventurousness, then, but by an indelible shame, for which she punishes herself with the burden of a "secret and self-imposed exile." Wearing her sister's clothes in both tribute and penance, she sails with Abraham to New York. From there they proceed by railroad and riverboat to Kansas City, where, just days after Lincoln's assassination, they begin the perilous trek along the Santa Fe Trail, one of the key commercial routes across the West. Among Eva's possessions in their two-buggy caravan are her mother's fine linens and the jewels that are her dowry, along with a Steinway piano and a bathtub, both acquired in New York. These unwieldy souvenirs of Eva's refined upbringing become more absurd as her journey progresses amid vicious thunderstorms, molten heat, persistent fears of cholera and Comanche massacres, and so many buffalo that soon they seem "barely more unusual than pigeons clustered on cobblestones." Beneath a vast, implacable sky, Eva's disorientation becomes total, and is effectively translated to the reader also: "Where they came from, where they were going -- it was quickly losing authority."

That sense of bewilderment continues after Eva arrives in Santa Fe, a halfhearted diorama of adobe rubble and church towers, its sad plaza lined with a few stores whose German Jewish names -- Sheinker's, Spiegelman's, Isinfeld's -- Eva finds "as amusing in these incongruous surroundings as they were reassuring." Her own house is a claustrophobic mud-cake hut with no stove or cold storage; before long, she finds herself attempting, with the help of her baffled Mexican servant, to uphold the dietary laws of her former life while she prepares a goose in honor of the local French bishop. Meanwhile, for Eva, the scene beyond the house is just as surreal. "Outside there were cavalry parading through the plaza, a hanged man swinging from a tree. There were Navajos filling skin bags with well water, Spanish women with wing-like rebozos carrying black-haired babies, drunkards moving through rubbish as if wading through algae in the ocean." So extreme is Eva's dislocation that every moment has a stunned quality: Where everything is surprising, anything is possible. Let's just say that her husband, an inept gambler and a feckless businessman, falls short of the grand American success he has imagined for himself. Yet while the overreaching Abraham is a carefully imagined and convincing character, this is always Eva's story. The reader remains tethered to her as she navigates the murky space between her old and new lives, never feeling safe in either one.

Near the book's end, Eva writes to her uncle about cottonwood trees that, she's heard, fall during annual spring rains into the current of the Mississippi River. "The spirit of this tree can be heard crying and crying as its roots cling to the soil and its trunk floats on the water. I feel like that floating trunk . . . those clinging roots -- nothing but a watery and divided ghost."

To the many expressions of this threshold experience in American immigration literature, by authors from Anzia Yezerskia to Jhumpa Lahiri, Hershon adds an eloquent voice.

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