In the Shad­ow of the Greenbriar

  • Review
By – May 7, 2024

In the Shad­ow of the Green­bri­er is a work of fic­tion that uses real facts and places. The Green­bri­er Resort in White Sul­phur Springs, West Vir­ginia is a golf resort and Nation­al His­toric Land­mark that is still oper­at­ing after more than one hun­dred years. The most note­wor­thy part of its his­to­ry is its bunker, a mas­sive under­ground dor­mi­to­ry built to pro­tect mem­bers of Con­gress in the event of a nuclear attack by Rus­sia. Emi­ly Matchar tells the sto­ry of this quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion and four gen­er­a­tions of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the heart of non-Jew­ish West Virginia. 

The nar­ra­tive unfolds through the view­point of one fam­i­ly mem­ber from each gen­er­a­tion. The main char­ac­ter is Sylvia, a refugee from cos­mopoli­tan Łódź who is a fish out of water in rur­al White Sul­phur Springs in the 1940s and 1950s. Angry and bit­ter, she could have come across as one-dimen­sion­al, but in fact she is the most relat­able char­ac­ter in the book. Her Euro­pean Jew­ish­ness clash­es con­stant­ly with Amer­i­can assim­i­la­tion and anti­semitism, both of which are per­va­sive at the Green­bri­er Resort. Sylvia’s des­tiny is built around a secret — just like White Sul­phur Springs itself, which tries to keep up the appear­ance of Amer­i­can inno­cence. Sev­er­al char­ac­ters have some­thing to hide, but the biggest secret of all is the bunker. It feels some­what anti­cli­mac­tic when that secret is final­ly revealed; the bunker is a rel­a­tive­ly inof­fen­sive project in light of oth­er Cold War intrigues.

Matchar does a good job of pair­ing the super­fi­cial good cheer and cul­tur­al bar­ren­ness of White Sul­phur Springs with the harsh beau­ty of the sun­less moun­tain val­ley on which it sits. She paints a believ­able pic­ture of the resort, which serves as a char­ac­ter itself and an arti­fact of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry America. 

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

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