One Foot in America

Yuri Suhl
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1950, One Foot in Amer­i­ca is an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el that tells the famil­iar sto­ry of a teenage green­horn and the often humor­ous process by which he slow­ly Amer­i­can­izes and becomes, in his own words, a reg­u­lar sport.” Shloime, or Sol as he comes to be known, immi­grates with his father and joins a warm fam­i­ly net­work (nonethe­less he is an orphan,” because his moth­er has died in the Old Coun­try). The year is 1923; the locus of Jew­ish immi­grant life has shift­ed from the Low­er East Side to Brook­lyn; and yet (as in Abra­ham Cahan’s Yekl, pub­lished in 1896), the nov­el still depicts sweat­shops, push­carts, wid­ow­ers who take in board­ers, and trips to the Yid­dish the­ater. How­ev­er, there are also now Amer­i­can” girls and boys, chil­dren of the ear­li­er immi­grant gen­er­a­tion, like Shirley, Sol’s first crush, who chews gum and is obsessed with the pic­tures.” And, in Suhl’s nar­ra­tive, there is far less dra­ma or angst than in Cahan’s or Anzia Yezierska’s fic­tion of the immi­grant strug­gle with accul­tur­a­tion. As we accom­pa­ny Sol through a series of devel­op­men­tal adven­tures — his job as a butch­er boy”; a street fight against anti-Semi­tes”; going steady,” and so on — we see him grap­ple with new Amer­i­can mores, but he always emerges with hope and con­fi­dence. It’s his father, a Tal­mud schol­ar with few prac­ti­cal skills, who is left on a tiny island in a small, dim­ly light­ed kitchen…in Brook­lyn, sur­round­ed by a big, tumul­tuous ocean called Amer­i­ca.” While there is a poignant qual­i­ty to the scenes in which his father tries to adapt, the nar­ra­tive revolves around Sol, with warmth, sweet­ness, and a gen­tle humor that pokes fun at Sol’s naiveté even while it cel­e­brates his com­ing-of-age suc­cess­es. As lit­er­ary immi­grant fic­tion, the aims of One Foot in Amer­i­ca are mod­est: to bring us into the narrator’s world and recre­ate it with ten­der­ness, as a kind of valen­tine to an era that is past. This it does very well. Read it with pleasure
Mar­ci Lavine Bloch earned her MLS from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, a BA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty. She has worked in syn­a­gogue and day school libraries and is cur­rent­ly fin­ish­ing her term on the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Committee.

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