Originally published in 1950, One Foot in America is an autobiographical novel that tells the familiar story of a teenage greenhorn and the often humorous process by which he slowly Americanizes and becomes, in his own words, “a regular sport.” Shloime, or Sol as he comes to be known, immigrates with his father and joins a warm family network (nonetheless he is an “orphan,” because his mother has died in the Old Country). The year is 1923; the locus of Jewish immigrant life has shifted from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn; and yet (as in Abraham Cahan’s Yekl, published in 1896), the novel still depicts sweatshops, pushcarts, widowers who take in boarders, and trips to the Yiddish theater. However, there are also now “American” girls and boys, children of the earlier immigrant generation, like Shirley, Sol’s first crush, who chews gum and is obsessed with the “pictures.” And, in Suhl’s narrative, there is far less drama or angst than in Cahan’s or Anzia Yezierska’s fiction of the immigrant struggle with acculturation. As we accompany Sol through a series of developmental adventures — his job as a “butcher boy”; a street fight against “anti-Semites”; “going steady,” and so on — we see him grapple with new American mores, but he always emerges with hope and confidence. It’s his father, a Talmud scholar with few practical skills, who is left on “a tiny island in a small, dimly lighted kitchen…in Brooklyn, surrounded by a big, tumultuous ocean called America.” While there is a poignant quality to the scenes in which his father tries to adapt, the narrative revolves around Sol, with warmth, sweetness, and a gentle humor that pokes fun at Sol’s naiveté even while it celebrates his coming-of-age successes. As literary immigrant fiction, the aims of One Foot in America are modest: to bring us into the narrator’s world and recreate it with tenderness, as a kind of valentine to an era that is past. This it does very well. Read it with pleasure
Marci Lavine Bloch earned her MLS from the University of Maryland, a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in English Literature from Fordham University. She has worked in synagogue and day school libraries and is currently finishing her term on the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.