This novel is a trip down memory lane for anyone of a certain age. Two wars are being fought at the same time; one is in Europe and the Pacific where World War II is raging and the other is in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, in Newark, New Jersey, where a polio epidemic is raging. Neither war will end well. Is the story ultimately about how we face a crisis and go forward into our future? Is it about control, who does and who does not have it in the face of tragedy? Is it about unfounded, unrealistic guilt and shame? Is it about the Jewish experience or the experience of everyman?
Two characters, the narrator and the protagonist, each were afflicted with polio and its after effects, but both face their futures in different ways. One character takes control of his life and masters it; one relinquishes control, wallows in self recrimination, railing at G-d about the life he has been given, somehow always feeling like he has missed out and always wanting more. He is too short, his eyesight is too poor, his background is wanting, and when he was rejected from the armed forces, branded 4F, he was devastated. He is not easily satisfied, and in fact, always finds the negative and disappointment in a given situation, rather than the silver lining.
During the summer of 1944, Eugene Cantor is the Director of Playgrounds; he loves his job. He is a Physical Education teacher and he really enjoys being with the children. He wants to mentor them, to help them become strong and principled. He is in love with a teacher from a wonderful family and life is going well for him, even though he feels a bit like he is always behind the eight ball, a bit short changed in the game of life.
He was raised by his grandparents; his mother died in childbirth and his father was a thief. He carried the shame of his crime within himself. Did he also carry the guilt for the death of his mother? His grandfather always emphasized hard work, strength of character and always doing the right thing. Although devoted to them both, his grandfather became his role model. Perhaps he also instilled that feeling of guilt within him, that he carried his entire life. Growing up, he always missed the atmosphere of what he considered a normal family, one with both parents offering encouragement and love. Even though he acknowledged the great love his grandparents shared with him, he hungered for what he did not have. This becomes a pattern for him. He always sees the dark side. Does he transfer that feeling of guilt onto every other aspect of his life, always making his burden a bit heavier?
The story proceeds along innocently enough, at first, but the pace picks up as you realize the fear the community is living with on a daily basis because of the war and the polio epidemic. Who will get a telegram about their son, whose child will come down with polio? No one knows, and furthermore, no one has any control over either which makes them even more impotent and afraid. There was a good deal of irrational fear as they waited for the next shoe to drop, the next victim to fall, always anticipating the next tragedy.
The book is narrated by Arnold Mesnikoff who is more than a decade younger than Eugene. He plays in the playground’s baseball games which Eugene (Bucky Cantor) organizes during that fateful summer of 1944. At the end of the book, the effect of those early dual wars is illuminated by the chance meeting of the two men, about three decades later. Each of them reacted to the events of that summer in their own unique way. The different roads they chose determined the lives they led and the obstacles they faced. Each had to face a challenge. Would they meet it with courage and strength or surrender to a different destiny?
Although the book is about a small Jewish enclave in New Jersey, anyone growing up in that time can't help but feel nostalgic. Although it was more than a decade later, I remember the same atmosphere: the air raid drills, air raid siren tests, polio scares, anti-Semitism, rivalry between Jews and Italians. Who doesn't recall the stoops in front of their attached homes, each with a narrow driveway separating them from their nearest neighbor and a postage stamp piece of property with a tree in front, newly planted? It could be a number of other Jewish communities in any urban center, not necessarily Newark. Roth has captured the true spirit and persona of the Jewish families of that time, their expectations, their hopes and their pressures. The relationship between parent and child, adult and minor was one of authority vs. powerlessness. Improper behavior, disobedience, weakness, was cause for guilt and shame, not only heaped upon the wayward one but also upon the entire family.
So many in that era lived in just such a house, in just such a neighborhood, hung laundry from the window, attaching it with clothespins to a line attached to a tree, some distance away, which was on a pulley system. (Who doesn’t remember the times the clothes that fell had to be retrieved by running down flights of stairs and then rewashing them by hand?). We hung out at the corner candy store, had ice cream sundaes with abandon, never thinking about calories. Who doesn't remember the shoemaker or the "druggist" who had as much respect as the doctor and whose advice you often sought first, before even calling a doctor? Times may have been different, even more dangerous, with the cold war and diseases with no vaccines, but the people seemed more connected, happier to communicate with each other then. Perhaps it was the invention of Air Conditioners or television that forced people inside and away from the communal gatherings in the street, in order to escape the heat or to simply socialize. Soon windows were closed, doors were shut, people sat alone in their homes, more isolated, entertained by a box with pictures and sound, and they no longer participated with each other to the same extent. They escaped from the real world into a world of fantasy. Perhaps that escape is necessary in the real world, in order to survive and not let life get you down. Is it the ability to find a silver lining inside of every cloud or the doom and gloom, sky is falling attitude that should prevail?
Mr. Roth captures the prevailing atmosphere of the times, the terrible fear of the disease for which their was no treatment or cure, not even a known cause that could be blamed, though they tried to find one; the Italians, the Board of Health, and even Mr. Cantor, the Playground Director was accused. He accurately describes the over-anxious Jewish mothers, their over arching need to protect and provide for their families, the culture of learning, the desire for education that is ever-present in the Jewish neighborhoods along with the ever-present shadow always lurking, of anti-Semitism. It was a time for Jews to gather their courage, stand tall and squash their image of meekness; they must face their difficulties, their trials with courage and fortitude, and this means Polio, as well. Ignorance was the main problem. No one knew how to stop the disease just as no one knew how to end the war quickly. There were so many deaths, untimely and unnecessary. Was anyone at fault? Should anyone feel guilty? Should someone be punished? Was everyone blameless? Who or what was the real enemy? Why did some fare better than others? Why did some handle their burdens more satisfactorily?
In the end, doesn’t this story have a larger meaning? Couldn’t the community be anywhere and the people be of any race or religion? Wouldn’t any neighborhood have reacted in similar fashion? Or, wouldn’t they? This brief book will make you wonder about all these questions, but it will not give you the answers. Those you must find for yourself.