In 1859 Boggy Haurowitz arrives in the Oklahoma Territories, the home base for four generations of his descendants whose lives Allison Amend assiduously details in her debut novel, Stations West. (Boggy Haurowitz’s name is borrowed from the actual first Jewish settler in Oklahoma.) Amend imagines the travails, romances, and fortunes of Boggy’s progeny while keeping an eye on major historical shifts: evolving race relations, the railroad, statehood, World War I, the Dust Bowl, and the Depression. Although at moments the dialogue veers toward Western cliche, Amend convincingly portrays a wide cast of characters tormented by fear of failure and wanderlust. The sympathetic main character, Garfield, is scarred by abandonment and quick to anger. Vivid descriptions of the physical realities of frontier life (brothels, wooden sidewalks, “horseless buggies”) are well researched. Exploring the concepts of family and Jewish identity, Amend brings us into a particularly harsh landscape where people pray in Hebrew not always knowing what the words mean. Oklahoma proves a challenging environment and the Haurowitz clan manages, against odds, to maintain a non-traditional but recognizably Jewish home.
by Erika Dreifus
Amend was born in Chicago, graduated from Stanford University, and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her IPPY Award-winning debut short story collection, Things That Pass for Love, was published in October 2008, and Stations West was published last March. Amend lives in New York. Visit her on the web at www.allisonamend.com.
Allison Amend: Stations West has been known — somewhat tongue-in-cheekily — as “The Jewish Cowboy Novel.” More seriously, it is an epic historical western about Jewish immigrants in Oklahoma in the 19th century. On a larger scale, it is a story about assimilation and alienation, and the formation of America. I’m also hoping to reclaim the myth of the Wild West and paint a truer portrait of what life was like on the frontier.ED: You are also an accomplished short story writer. Readers may not know that Stations West began its own published life as a short story, in the prestigious journal One Story, in 2002.How did you know that this story was destined to become a novel?
AA: I’m not sure I knew Stations West was destined to become a novel until I finally finished it, and even then I wasn’t sure it would be a published novel until I held the printed copy in my hands many years later. I still worry that I’ll wake up and it will all have been a dream. I received a lot of response from my One Story appearance, and everyone encouraged me to further explore the (mis)adventures of the Haurowitz family. I decided to continue the story when I realized that the scope of what I wanted to accomplish with this book would not be completely exhausted in a short story. But Stations West’s road to publication was rocky; the book had many incarnations. Originally, the story shared its setting with a modern woman in Tulsa, Okla., who traces her family’s roots. Then I realized I didn’t need or want this frame. Other versions included a hundred pages of one character’s life in Chicago. I love those pages, but they don’t fit the rest of the book. Stations West and I survived an agent’s attempt and failure to sell it to a mainstream press, the death from cancer of its champion at Oklahoma University Press, and finally its acceptance by Michael Griffith, curator of Louisiana State University Press Yellow Shoe Fiction Series.ED: What do you imagine your novel’s characters would think about Jewish life in the United States today?
AA: There are so many kinds of Jewish life today. I wonder which kind my characters would be asked to comment on. If they were asked about my life, I’d like to imagine that they’d be happy at how assimilated I am. I’ve lived nearly free of anti-Semitism and have had no opportunities denied me because of my religion/ethnicity. I hope the Haurowitzes would be excited that their efforts at assimilation had paid off. They lived fairly secular lives; they would probably not be too shocked at the secularity of mine.ED: At the end of the book, you thank your grandparents, Ethel and Edward Cohen, “whose experience as Jewish Oklahomans and collection of Oklahoma Judaica inspired this story.” Please tell us a little more about your grandparents as Jewish Oklahomans.
AA: My maternal grandmother was born in 1916, and she grew up in Tulsa. My grandfather came down to Oklahoma from Duluth, Minn., in 1939. They were extremely active in Jewish life, perhaps because Tulsa’s community was so small. My grandfather was involved in their synagogue; he got re-barmitzvahed at the age of 70. My grandmother did a lot of charity work. They were ardent Zionists, and made aliyah with my paternal grandparents. They also traveled throughout Europe, seeking out Yiddish/Jewish communities so they could speak to the locals. My grandmother singlehandedly supported the local fish store, which sent over an entire salmon when she passed away.ED: What does it mean to you to be part of the Jewish Book NETWORK?
AA: I was just visiting an interfaith book club, and talking about the Jewish Book NETWORK. The depth of its commitment to literature and reading and the extent of the network’s influence are incredible. Anyone who believes that the death of publishing and of serious literature is imminent needs to look at the JBN to see that’s not true. The NETWORK also emphasizes the very Jewish tradition of scholarship, and I am thrilled and honored to be among the successful writers that the JBN has championed.ED: Who are some of the authors who have inspired you?
AA: For Stations West, I was looking at books by Wallace Stegner and Saul Bellow. Stegner for his amazing descriptions of the American West and his ability to make location a character in his fiction, and Bellow for his portrayals of the dance between assimilation and alienation that we, as Jews, perform daily. I am also inspired by my peers, emerging fiction writers such as Thisbe Nissen, Margo Rabb, Josh Weil, Sheri Joseph, Laura Van Den Berg, Adam Haslett, Hannah Tinti, and others.ED: What can we look forward to reading from you next?
AA: So glad you asked! I’m working on another novel, this one set in the near future. It’s currently wearing the title “The Cunning Hand” and explores art forgery and human cloning. I like to work in different styles and voices, though it might make me a less marketable author. I’m also working on a couple of screenplays and some children’s titles for the PJ Library, a wonderful organization that provides books free of charge each month to Jewish children around the country, with the support of a local Jewish organization and local donor. Additionally, I’m starting a memoir that chronicles my family’s experience as the possible victims of a hate crime.
The First Jewish Oklahoman
I thought it would be funny to write a story about the first Jewish Oklahoman. The real-life Bogy Johnson would become, in my fictionalization, a Jewish cowboy — “City Slickers” meets “True Grit.” I turned him into Boggy Horowitz, sauntering into a Cherokee settlement in Oklahoma Territory on horseback in 1859. But as I wrote, his life and those of his children and grandchildren spooled out before me, full of intermarriage and infidelity, assimilation and alienation, financial difficulty and solvency. And my humorous short story turned into a literary novel. In Stations West, four generations take to the transcontinental railroad to seek their fortune and their future, riding the rails into the 20th century as the wandering Jews of the Wild West before returning home to Oklahoma.
Thanks to Rogers and Hammerstein, most of us think of Oklahoma as a state of lazy hawks and shiny surreys, but well before its admittance to the Union in 1907, or its Broadway debut in 1943, Oklahoma was home to Native Americans, peddlers, ranchers, railworkers, shopkeepers, outlaws, oilmen, and, yes, even Jews.
Since I published Stations West, many people have approached me to tell me about a friend or relative who is a Jew from an equally unlikely place, North Dakota, say, or West Virginia. Their stories must be similar to my protagonists’ — the complex negotiation of identity, a constant dance of assimilation and adherence to heritage. Each time we leave the house, as Jews, as Americans, as social human beings, we decide how much of ourselves we want to suppress or subsume to fit in. Whether you’re an immigrant to a lawless territory just after the Civil War, a taciturn half-Indian Jew, a fully assimilated third-generation prospector, or a 21st century Brooklynite, choosing what role Judaism plays in your life is a constant and fluctuating compromise, akin to the thousand minor muscular adjustments a cowboy makes to stay on his moving horse.
Totemic items follow the characters through the narrative. A small Torah accompanies Boggy from the Old Country and lasts two generations before it burns in a fire; a mezuzah survives that fire only to be subjected to a second one. And a candelabra, a sometime Menorah, remains one of the few objects of value not sold in the Great Depression. These symbols of Jewish life, however fragile, are the links between generations, the daily reminders of shared origins.
An additional theme in the book is the harshness of frontier life. It is not easy to be a trailblazer; the work was backbreaking and unrelenting, the vulnerability to weather, disease, and ruin a constant worry. In the fictional town of Owenasa, life is far different from the shellacked rodeo of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which was already mounting an ersatz version of itself in the early 1870’s. By reclaiming of the myth of the Wild West, I hope to document the lives of those people, often Jews, who were heretofore mere footnotes in the founding of our country.
An untold true story is an invitation to a fiction writer: enough fact to suggest a trajectory, not enough to inhibit imagination. Boggy is a witness and a player in the great settling of the American West, his influence on Oklahoma as important as those whom history has deigned to record. His struggle is writ large; it is the story of the West and of America itself.
Read Allison Amend’s Posts on the Visiting Scribe
Jews in Odd Places
Haurowitz/Harris’ Goods and Sundries
A Community of Immigrants