• Review
By – August 25, 2011

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.

Inter­view

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​.allison​amend​.com.

Eri­ka Drei­fus: How would you describe your nov­el, Sta­tions West?

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 Wests 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

by Alli­son Amend

It began as a joke: On my grandfather’s shelf sat The Jews of Okla­homa, a vol­ume so slim it might have been a glo­ri­fied pam­phlet. Of the moun­tains of detri­tus (work­out videos, enor­mous gal­lon jars of rum raisins, antique sports equip­ment, kitschy Judaica, and books, thou­sands of books) this is the one keep­sake I took from my grand­par­ents’ home after they died. 

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
 

Sam White lives in Brook­lyn and is from San Fran­cis­co and Bak­ers­field, CA.

Discussion Questions