Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present — a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families.
Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.
There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.
The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher — the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn.
Barren Island boils with moral issues, with the aging of parents and the maturation of children, with romance, humiliation, longing, and desperation. Where do desperate people find hope? Can the horrors of their victimization be relieved by watching the graceful scavenging of beautiful birds? No, too many of the Barren Shoals residents are themselves scavengers.
The building of a community garden is a hopeful sign, indicating that, with diligence and application, something can come of nothing. A less encouraging thread involves Mr. Eisenstein’s frequent trips to the HIAS office in a futile attempt to bring threatened relatives from Hitler’s Europe to the United States.
Barren Island is a brilliant coming-of-age novel; Marta’s portrait of her youth is informed by the distance she has traveled and the experiences from which she has learned. And the book is also much more. Zoref takes readers to places they have not been or even heard of before — places that might be close geographically, but remain distant in most other ways. The book is a grand testimony to the human spirit and a weighty reminder of the consequences of neglect.
This book received the 2017 National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ (AWP) Award for the Novel and was longlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction. Zoref’s narrative is so beautifully written, so richly perceptive, and so polished that it will surely be given many more accolades.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.