The UnAmericans encompasses Brattleboro, Vermont
Review by Sheldon G. Weeks
"If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth" is a quote from Gandhi used by Molly Antopol in her collection of short stories. She places two of them in Vermont. She is in her early thirties, now teaches at Stanford, and won a National Book Foundation Award for The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014). Most of the stories are set in a past that occurred long before she was born, in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and in New York and California. She says they reflect her family’s history. She has written more about this in The New Yorker Magazine in January this year in a blog, THE BOOK OF ANTOPOL (OR, CAN WE EVER KNOW THE PAST?).
Molly Antopol knew her great-grandmother Molly was from Antopol in Belarus, a few hours from Minsk, in the former Soviet Union, but didn’t even know where it was. After graduating from college about fourteen years ago, when in Haifa, Israel, she met an old woman working in a kitchen who was from Antopol.
Molly grew up hearing the stories of her grandparents, and "the two F.B.I. men my grandfather, an active Communist, claimed he could hear coming up the lawn every night during dinner, even before they knocked--always the same two agents in stiff brown suits, asking if he had a minute to talk". She has spun a number of excellent stories around their tales. The more recent ones reflect her own experience, intertwined with family lore, and are set in multiple places from Brattleboro, Vermont to Kiev, Ukraine through Queens, New York City to Prague, Czech Republic and Minsk, Belarus.
In "The Old World," a man whose wife has left him for a more exciting partner in Burlington, Vermont, responds to a woman who enters his shop. Their idle conversation about Kiev leads to an affair. Sveta is a widow from Antopol, while his links to Belarus/Ukraine are through his grandfather, and he has never been there. They will honeymoon in Kiev, a destination better left alone.
"My Grandmother Tells Me This Story," begins in the sewers in Belarus, a beleaguered country. She was just a teenager when she took off to the forest and joined a band of revolutionary anti-Fascist teenagers. At thirteen she accepted a mate for safety, who became the teller’s grandfather. "I had become a Medusa, a monster, a creature of the forests of a fairy tale".
Molly Antopol has a wonderful way of capturing the foibles in the way people communicate and how these impact on their lives. Also how small events compound themselves to come between people. She tells her stories gently, without hectoring, letting ideas, feelings, conversations and misunderstandings unfold. She is especially good at teasing out the essence of cross-generational sensitivities.
She says of her rediscovering herself in 1960 in Israel "That was the year I started writing stories, many inspired by my family history: the garment-worker strikes of the nineteen-twenties, the Red Scare of the fifties, the liberalism of the seventies."
Her title is not taken from any of the eight stories, though it would fit "Duck and Cover" which begins in the mid-1950s with the narrator talking about her father who "joined the Party during the Depression, just anther unemployed factory worker looking, as he told me a million times, for ‘a model that actually worked.’" They moved from the Bronx to California when he was six. And there her father’s party group met in their living room. He asked her never to tell anyone about their meetings. She was told, "Duck and Cover" by her schoolteacher when they had to take shelter under their desks during mock air-raid drills. Her father mocks the practices and what they stand for--"The Russians were Ike’s enemy, not ours". When he takes up with Gladys, a hard-core organizer--"she is committed to the cause"--she takes off after a teenager she met by accident, following him home to his true-blue American household, where an initiation into a different world awaits her.
"The Unknown Soldier" is Alexi Liebman’s appellation based on playing a Soviet hero in a movie he was the star. He is an actor, ruined by the naming of names by Julia Wexler, of all people, his lover, fellow thespian and member of their Communist Party cell. His tale starts with his release from prison after serving time for contempt of Congress after he refused to answer questions poised by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His story focusses more on his relationships with the other actors, scriptwriters, and directors, and Katherine Baker, their evolving love, marriage, and their son Benny, on the intense and befuddled human side of their lives. Alexi had played a part, and never told Katherine about his role with the CP. She is angry; "You had kept a life from me, Alexi". Benny is now ten. He had not visited Alexi in prison. On getting out Alexi has a weekend ahead of him with his son. Can they manage to be together again?
In The Quietest Man an aspiring lifelong writer who never made the grade, an exile from Prague, learns that his daughter, Daniella, has sold a play. He survives from one temporary academic appointment to another at small colleges, and is now in Hapswick, Maine. He is filled with longing, pride and trepidation--desire to be with his daughter whom he has seen seldom since he and Katka divorced. He is proud that his daughter was successful, and fears that she has misrepresented his life in her play about him. He is called the "Quietest Man" because he never told names when at Prague University he was interned by the Communists and accused of activities against the State. He invites Daniella to visit him for a weekend. Is he capable of a normal relationship with her? He is not sure.
"A Difficult Phase" finds Talia, a journalist, with experience working for a Chicago paper at the cutting edge of stories in the Ukraine and "the thrill of living on the other side of the glass". The journalism crash in 2008 sends her back to Israel to live with her parents, and in desperation working for an advertising paper. "Since coming home she felt it impossible to hold on to the spontaneity she’d embraced so effortlessly in Kiev". In a café in Tel Aviv she meets a middle-aged man, and intrigued by the meaning of his double smile follows him out on to the street. Tomer’s wife had died sixteen months before, and she was his first venture. She finds happiness in his arms, and confusion with his troubled daughter Gali, who at fourteen wants to behave as if she was twenty. Gali will become the yeast of their relationship, as will her parents in their solid way.
The final story, "Retrospective" takes place partially in Brattleboro, Jerusalem and New York. Eva Kaplan has died. She was the matriarch of an extraordinary extended family, a connoisseur of Russian art, and when younger specialized in smuggling artist’s works, by those who could not conform to Soviet Realism, out of the country. She had become a patron of the arts, a benefactor and philanthropist. Fifty years before she was made famous by Borovsky’s portraits of her. She had married Sy and now her grandchildren, in their twenties, were due to perpetuate her activities. Mira and her husband Boaz, both translators, with a home on Vermont, were sent to Israel to represent the family at the ceremonies in Eva’s honour and to implement her Will. Before going, they had been estranged, even though Mira is pregnant, because she had fallen in love with another man in Brattleboro. Will they be capable of observing the trust given to them, and how will they be shaped by what they discover of Eva.
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