The UnAmericans

W.W. Norton & Company  2014


Reading through the engaging stories in Molly Antopol’s debut collection, The UnAmericans, feels a little like flipping through a pile of assorted family snapshots found in a thrift store. Some of the photos might be wilted; some might have creased edges; some might be black-and-white Polaroids; some might be full-colored and grainy. The settings and figures and backgrounds might all, for the most part, be different too. But an underlying connection bridges them, linking the images together into a beautiful and haphazard assemblage, a narrative with no clear beginning, middle, or end.

The locales traversed in Antopol’s stories range from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to San Francisco and Prague and Ditmas Park, and the times vary from the McCarthy era to World War II to not too long ago. In one, we meet a disillusioned academic (formerly “a skinny kid from a family of uneducated dairy farmers in Moravia”), who begrudgingly faces his daughter’s first creative success—an autobiographical play. In another, we witness a set of Israeli Moshavnik brothers dealing with tragedy and love in the pomelo groves. A Ukrainian woman mourns the loss of her husband with the help of her second husband, a Brooklyn native who owns five cleaners in the New York area because, as he explains, his grandfather was a tailor in Kiev. “If my grandfather had been a brain surgeon, I’d be a brain surgeon now, too.”

These stories all echo a question that Grace Paley once posed in her own unforgettable treatise on immigrant lives (her short story, “The Immigrant Story”): “Isn't it a terrible thing to grow up in the shadow of another person's sorrow?” The characters in Antopol’s collection are haunted in one way or another by the worlds that they, or those close to them, left behind, by choice or necessity. They cannot or do not want to escape the past, or, as one character’s grandmother describes it, “These horrible things that happened before you were born.”

For all of this melancholy, there is something insistently comforting and honest about the ways these characters accept their complicated entanglements. “Remember the Bronx?” one girl’s father “loves to say to anyone who will listen.” These stories are filled with listeners—from the granddaughter who is always asking questions (“pulling someone into a corner at every family party”) to the journalist holding court with her suitor’s teenage daughter high up in a tree overlooking a field of palm groves. Antopol’s carefully crafted stories demand our attention, as they remind us to stop, look, and listen.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Molly Antopol

Read Molly Antopol's Posts for the Visiting Scribe

On Chaim Potok’s The Chosen

On Edith Pearlman

Discussion Questions

JBC Book Clubs Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think of the title of the book? What does UnAmerican mean to you? In which ways are these stories and characters "unAmerican"? Is there a single meaning of "unAmerican" or does it shift? Does it mean something different in the stories that are set in other countries?
  2. Are there themes that unite this story collection, aside from the title?
  3. What do you think the title of the first story, "The Old World," refers to?
  4. In the story "The Unknown Soldier", Katherine tells Alexi that the most hurtful of his offences is that he "kept a life from me" (p. 199). Which other characters are guilty of this? Do you agree that, of all their transgressions, it is the most grave?
  5. Some of the characters rely on an organized support system, such as the Community Party or Orthodox Judaism. Are these systems redeeming or harmful in each case?
  6. At the end of "A Difficult Phase", Talia says that the only thing she knows for certain is that soon, poison would numb the places that hurt the most. Is this comforting? Is it positive or destructive?
  7. In "The Quietest Man" and "My Grandmother Tells Me This Story", an older generation recounts a story from their past at the bequest of a younger generation. What are the different approaches of the two storytellers? Which do you think is more damaging?
  8. Does the order of the stories create a narrative arc for the collection? What do you think about the last sentence in the book? Is it the ending of that story or the book as a whole?
JBC Book Clubs questions (c) Jewish Book Council, Inc., 2014

Discussion Questions From the Publisher

Courtesy of WW Norton

  1. Many of the characters in The UnAmericans travel or change locations during the course of their story. How does this seem to affect who they are?
  2. What beliefs do these characters cling to, and how do they struggle with letting go?
  3. The age-old themes of East versus West and Old World versus New World are big ones in The UnAmericans. How do these themes relate to the characters’ ideas about religion, or about family, or about growing old?
  4. How does the history of a given character’s home country agree with or depart from his or her own history or destiny?
  5. Think about the idea of home. What does the word mean to these characters?
  6. Why might the author have titled her collection of stories The UnAmericans? Consider the settings, religious affiliations, political beliefs, and other similar factors when coming up with your answer.
  7. Considering the rich interior lives of these characters, think about how our beliefs about others conflict with reality. How do we create other people in our minds?
  8. What do these stories have to say about the place of religion—and especially Judaism—in the contemporary world?
  9. Many of these characters are trying to get away from something. Talk about the theme of escape in these stories
  10. How do these characters lie to each other, and to themselves, in order to construct alternate “truths” that they find more comforting?
  11. Communism plays a big part in this collection. How has the fall of the Iron Curtain affected the emotional lives of these characters?
  12. What is the place of authority, whether parental or governmental, in the lives of these characters?
  13. Art of various forms—painting, film, writing—plays a big part these stories. What do these stories have to say about the role of art in the immigrant experience?
  14. In the stories, older generations look forward and not back, while younger generations look back in order to understand the present. Do you think these two outlooks can be reconciled?

A Conversation With Molly Antopol 

As part of the National Jewish Book Club program, we will be hosting six online talks throughout the year. Our first conversation was on Nov. 13 with Molly Antopol, the author of The UnAmericans

Did you miss the live event? You can watch the conversation here!

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