Non­fic­tion

Green­horns: Stories

  • Review
By – May 13, 2019

The six sto­ries in this col­lec­tion explore the green­horn expe­ri­ence in the con­text of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly to New York City, from the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry through the ear­ly years of the Great Depres­sion. Slotkin has based his tales on inter­views he held with fam­i­ly mem­bers who came to the Unit­ed States from Rus­sia and Poland between 1900 and 1921.

Through his fic­tion­al retellings, Slotkin demon­strates how his­tor­i­cal mark­ers shaped and defined the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of immi­grants. In 1905, Jews escaped the lat­est out­bursts of vio­lent anti­semitism in Rus­sia and Poland, and made their way to what many believed would be the promised land. The end of World War II brought aware­ness of the Holo­caust, which many new immi­grants had man­aged to escape. The found­ing of the mod­ern Jew­ish State was anoth­er mile­stone: a pin­na­cle of Jew­ish pride.

Slotkin’s col­lec­tion also explores fam­i­ly dynam­ics, and the gen­er­a­tional gaps that com­pli­cate them. While young­sters often adapt and assim­i­late with ease in these sto­ries, old­er immi­grants are more like­ly to have a dif­fi­cult time, some nev­er find­ing true com­fort in the nation or neigh­bor­hood in which they now live — they nev­er stop being green­horns. One man, back in the oth­er side” a promi­nent wheat bro­ker, can­not recon­struct his suc­cess in his new envi­ron­ment: he has lost too much sta­tus, too much con­text for the mean­ing of his life. He becomes a recluse. Oth­ers find ways to fit in, grasp­ing when pos­si­ble the help­ing hand of a cousin already estab­lished or a friend­ly neighbor.

Some find life in New York just as demean­ing as a life threat­ened by Cos­sacks. Many chil­dren and grand­chil­dren make their way and gain the CUNY seal of approval. One cou­ple ris­es from doing sweat­shop piece­work to busi­ness promi­nence; Herschel’s Fine Cloth­ier becomes a nation­al brand with stores in major cities. Oth­er off-the-boat” Jew­ish fam­i­lies find ruin.

Each sto­ry is a gem in its ren­der­ing of green­horn con­ver­sa­tion and sen­si­bil­i­ties as plumbed by a duti­ful nar­ra­tor, who is always depict­ed as a sophis­ti­cate among those still find­ing or fresh­ly remem­ber­ing their way. The lan­guage, sea­soned with Yid­dish, car­ries the rise and fall of ques­tions asked and not answered. So who knew? some­one might say. Jok­ing is impor­tant, and Slotkin gives us just enough of it, espe­cial­ly in Chil­dren, Drunks, and the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca.” The most mov­ing sto­ry in the col­lec­tion, Uncle Max and Cousin Yos­si,” is a fable-like tale about sep­a­rat­ed broth­ers, and how much of life is up to chance.

Green­horns is a small mon­u­ment to an epoch not to be forgotten.

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.

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