The Tin Horse

By – January 29, 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.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

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 . 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?