Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war. Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah. His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically. These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah. But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations. Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides. He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see. Conflicts ensue. There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems. Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.
Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee. He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back. The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face. Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy. They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story. The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story. After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast. That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.
I recommend this book. Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.
At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing. You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine. Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home. First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.
This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky. The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear. No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots. It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions. They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.
Fortunately, Ung managed to get out. After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers. She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community. In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began. Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections. Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.
Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book. Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart. This is what genocide felt like to a young child. She may not have focused on the politics behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror. People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result. At some level the politics really didn’t matter.
Growing up Asian American – Stories of Childhood, Adolescence and Coming of Age in America from the 1800s to the 1990s, edited and with an introduction by Maria Hong, is a collection of 33 pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Asian American immigrant experience in America. The stories share many themes — concerns about parents’ expectations, awareness that parents don’t quite fit in or don’t quite get what is going on. and then the writers’ own concerns about how to get along. A number of the writers feel considerable stress between their families’ insular worlds and their own experiences in American schools and communities. There are also cringing moments when the writers and their families face discrimination, both blatant and (hopefully) unintended. These stories don’t have many happy, cohesive families. Instead, most of the writers come across as loners who have been thrust into an alien environment without the proper tools for survival.
This book is highly recommended. The sheer volume (33) of the pieces underscores the fact that, regardless of immigration status or economic circumstances, it can be really tough to move to this country and that it can be uniquely traumatic for children.