The Last Chicken in America

W.W. Norton  2007

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.

Discussion Questions

From: W.W. Norton & Company

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?

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