The Tin Horse

Random House  2013


This beautifully written novel, spanning from the 1920s to the present day, tells the story of several generations of a large Jewish family in California. The narrative alternates between the current life of Elaine Greenstein, who is now in her 80’s, and her past, beginning with her childhood in a suburb of Los Angeles. Elaine’s twin, Barbara, is her best friend and foe. Opposite in temperament, Barbara is the vainer, fun seeking, impulsive sister, while Elaine is more serious, brainy, and mindful. We read about close yet complicated relationships between children, parents, and grandparents, aunts, and nieces. We learn about the hardships of life in the old country and immigration to America. We discover that some family stories are often told while others are kept hidden. The twins vie for their mother’s love and for a neighborhood boy. When Barbara goes missing at age eighteen, this tale evolves into a mystery whose solution can only be partially solved at the end. The author explores what it takes to fulfill one’s personal vision and describes how it feels to look back on a long life’s experiences. Steinberg paints the locales vividly and the story and dialogue flow well. This interesting and easy read opens up a view on Jewish life in California before and after World War II.

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs Discussion Questions

In her blog posts for JBC, Janice Steinberg revealed that the inspiration for this book was a scene from Raymond Chandler's  where Det. Phillip Marlowe meets a woman in a book store (described as "an intelligent Jewess"), and that her original title for the book was The Intelligent Jewess. Does that title seem a better fit for the novel? If that were the title, would that change your perception of the book or of the focus of the book?

Do you think Elaine and Barbara continued a relationship after Elaine's visit to the ranch? Did their reunion constitute a reconciliation? 

Throughout the novel, family members keep secrets from each other, and many of the characters—Zayde, Mama, Danny, Barbara—make up stories to create better versions of life. Are they justified in doing this? Who do the lies protect and who do they hurt? 

Was Mama right to make her promise to Barbara to let her live her life and not to tell the family? Which act hurt Elaine more, Barbara's disappearance or her mother keeping her sister's whereabouts from the rest of the family? 

During a phone conversation with Danny (p. 170), Elaine, hearing Danny sound just like he had as a child, asks, "Do we ever really change?" Over the course of the novel, do any of the characters change? Do people in general?

Early on in life, Elaine defines herself in terms of her not-Barbara-ness. Even as she demands that people see her for herself, do you think she ever really sees herself? Is that inherent in being a twin? 

On Elaine and Barbara's first day of school, they are directed to separate classes, and the principal tells their mother that Elaine will blossom being in a different classroom from her sister. Do you think that remained true when Barbara disappeared?

The characters in this novel are all flawed--did you feel that any of them were more sympathetic than others? Was there anyone that you didn't feel any sympathy for at all?

What does the tin horse signify? Does its meaning shift over the course of the novel?

JBC Book Clubs questions (c) Jewish Book Council, Inc., 2014

Read Janice Steinberg's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

The Beauty of Broken English

Hearing the Women's Songs—in Torah and in "The Big Sleep"

Djewess Unchained

The Last Jew of Boyle Heights

Read Janice Steinberg's Post for The Postscript: JBC Book Club Bonus

A Meal from The Tin Horse, Minus the Tsuris

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