The Last Chick­en in America

By – February 24, 2012

You’ve prob­a­bly seen the Russ­ian immi­grants in Ellen Litman’s The Last Chick­en in Amer­i­ca. Litman’s debut, a col­lec­tion of inter­lock­ing short sto­ries, doesn’t aim to impress with nov­el­ty but aims for a lofti­er goal: strong sto­ries well told. The sto­ries, which focus on the Russ­ian com­mu­ni­ty in the Squir­rel Hill neigh­bor­hood of Pitts­burgh, tell the famil­iar sto­ry of Russ­ian ide­al­ism meet­ing Amer­i­can empti­ness. Litman’s immi­grants live in small apart­ments, hold degrees in engi­neer­ing but work clean­ing hous­es; the lucky ones are com­put­er pro­gram­mers. The par­ents are some­what hap­py to be in Amer­i­ca, but the chil­dren are surly, wear too much make­up, and smoke in the back of the school, and the elder­ly smell vague­ly bit­ter, not sure where they are or how they came to be there; all of them won­der why the Amer­i­ca they’re liv­ing in is noth­ing like the Amer­i­ca they’ve dreamed about. You’ve seen them all before yet you’ve nev­er both­ered to real­ly think about them, and by the time you get to the end of The Last Chick­en in Amer­i­ca, you real­ize you’re going to miss them ter­ri­bly once they’re gone.

Michael Orbach is a free­lance writer and the edi­tor of 72nd Avenue, a Queens Col­lege publication.

Discussion Questions

1. Though sev­er­al dozen char­ac­ters are intro­duced in the sto­ries that make up The Last Chick­en in Amer­i­ca, Masha and her par­ents appear in the first and last sto­ries, and sev­er­al sto­ries in between. Why do you think Lit­man chose to make these three char­ac­ters the back­bone of her nov­el in stories”?

2. How does Squir­rel Hill serve as both a trap and a source of cul­tur­al com­fort to the char­ac­ters in the stories?

3. How does Alick com­pare with Masha’s boyfriend in the final sto­ry? What does Masha’s choice in boyfriends say about her evo­lu­tion as an Amer­i­can — and as a young woman?

4. In what ways are the char­ac­ters’ strug­gles in the book sim­i­lar to the hard­ships faced by many Amer­i­cans? In what ways do the char­ac­ters have a dis­tinct­ly immi­grant experience?

5. How does Din­ka treat her father in the sto­ry What Do You Dream of, Cruis­er Auro­ra?” Are there oth­er instances in the book where the tra­di­tion­al roles of par­ent and child seem to be reversed? Why might this kind of role rever­sal occur?

6. At the end of What Do You Dream of, Cruis­er Auro­ra?” Liber­man describes Mira as a love­ly and pow­er­ful ves­sel.” What do you think he means by that?

7. In the sto­ry Char­i­ty,” Masha and Pamela exhib­it two very dif­fer­ent atti­tudes toward reli­gion. What are they? How is the ten­sion between the more sec­u­lar Jew­ish immi­grants and the con­ser­v­a­tive Jews both exposed and suppressed?

8. In the final sto­ry, Home,” we learn that Natasha has met a sec­ond hus­band, a Span­ish man. How does this change your under­stand­ing of Natasha and her expe­ri­ence in the ear­li­er story?

9. Why does Masha’s rela­tion­ship with Vic­tor sour in The Russ­ian Club”? How does their breakup illu­mi­nate the dif­fer­ence between being a vis­i­tor and being an immi­grant? What does this sto­ry say about the bar­ri­er between cul­tur­al curios­i­ty and immi­grant hard­ship? What rifts in the Russ­ian com­mu­ni­ty are exposed in this story?

10. Why do you think Lit­man chose to write to you” (i.e., in the sec­ond per­son) in the sto­ry When the Neigh­bors Love You”? How is Anya’s choice between Maks and David sim­i­lar to her choice between BU and Pitt?

11. What is the mean­ing of the sto­ry title The Tra­jec­to­ry of Fry­ing Pans”? Why can dat­ing be par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing for young immi­grants like Misha?

12. How has Masha’s rela­tion­ship with her par­ents changed by the final sto­ry, Home”? How has her under­stand­ing of the immi­grant expe­ri­ence changed?

13. In The Russ­ian Club” Vic­tor writes, For a true Russ­ian per­son, immi­gra­tion is death. A Russ­ian poet can’t sur­vive in immi­gra­tion.” Do the expe­ri­ences of the immi­grants in this book bear out this notion?