The Puz­zle King

By – October 27, 2011

It is easy to hear the ring of truth in nov­els about the Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence, and it is also easy to iden­ti­fy with those who peo­ple such nov­els, but there is some­thing unique about The Puz­zle King, an almost pal­pa­ble res­o­nance that rever­ber­ates through­out the text, for here the author exudes love and admi­ra­tion, and it is real. This char­ac­ter-dri­ven nov­el need not rely on plot: read­ers know the aston­ish­ing suc­cess sto­ries of Jews who came to Amer­i­ca; they know the per­se­cu­tion from which the char­ac­ters escaped; and they know the atti­tudes of loy­al Ger­man Jews who, in the clear light of dan­ger, believed that Ger­mans do not desert their coun­try just because it hap­pens to be going through hard times.”

The Puz­zle King tells the sto­ry of Simon Phelps, some­one who exem­pli­fies the notion that you can take the man out of the coun­try, but you can’t take the coun­try out of the man.” Carter deft­ly intro­duces the fam­i­ly with whom read­ers will spend their time. There is Flo­ra Gross­man (ulti­mate­ly Simon’s wife), who adores her hus­band, slips com­fort­ably into an Amer­i­can life, but longs for chil­dren to com­plete her. There is Seema, Flora’s sis­ter, who comes to Amer­i­ca with her and best defines the immi­grant who eschews reli­gion and relies upon a mis­guid­ed need to accul­tur­ate; and there is Mar­got, anoth­er sis­ter, who refus­es to leave Ger­many despite the prob­lems there. Through­out the humor­ous and often poignant descrip­tions, there is a con­stant tone of long­ing and feel­ing some­how out of place” that is ever-present like a lin­ger­ing echo.

The men in this nov­el are resilient and strong, but no one is more intrigu­ing than Simon. He is the puz­zle king, a man who uses his cre­ative abil­i­ties to carve out a place for him­self in Amer­i­ca; a man entire­ly devot­ed to his wife; and a man who even at the height of his suc­cess, bemoans the fact that he can earn a for­tune mak­ing puz­zles,” but can’t solve the real one in [his] own life.” The puz­zle that haunts him: what has hap­pened to the fam­i­ly he left in Lithua­nia? To know and under­stand Simon as Carter por­trays him is to know that he finds a way.

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

Discussion Questions

1. How did Simon Phelps retain his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty as a young boy com­ing to Amer­i­ca on his own?

2. Had Flo­ra and Simon had chil­dren of their own, would they have been as pas­sion­ate and deter­mined about their mission?

3. Was there any­thing about the char­ac­ters of Flo­ra and Simon in the begin­ning of the book that made you think they would act as they did at the end of the book?

4. Did you feel pos­i­tive­ly or neg­a­tive­ly about Karl Emmer­ling? What would you do in his situation?

5. Why did Fred­er­ick and Mar­got con­tin­ue to stay on in Ger­many even when every­one was urg­ing them to go?