Immigrant Fiction – Arrivals from Eastern Europe/Russia

CathyBlog4.29.15Landing in both England and America over the last two centuries, from Russia, Albania, Hungary, Ukraine, these parents and grandparents have stories that are ready to be brought to light.

shorthistoryA darkly comic novel with quirky characters,  A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (2005) is set in England.

He has it all worked out. She will care for him as he grows older and frailer. He will put a roof over her head, share his tiny pension with her until she finds that well-paid job… They will discuss art, literature, philosophy together in the evenings. She is a cultured woman, not a chatterbox peasant woman… She, like him, admires Constructivist art and abhors neoclassicism… a sound foundation for marriage.

Nikolai is concerned about his important research on the effects of the tractor on the 20th century, and how it “brought us to the brink of ruin through carelessness and overuse.”  The father of Nazda and Vera, he moves on from the death of his wife with the help of Valentina, his modern mail-order bride from the Ukraine.

The sisters, who are barely on speaking terms with each other, have to join forces to protect their father and in the meantime come to understand much about a long buried family history.  A humorous take on the challenges of sibling rivalry, and caring for aging parents, is put into perspective as the stories unfold.

speedoflightA Hidden Gem for its “poetry in prose” and complexity of characters is The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner (2001). We get to know siblings Julian and Paula through broken snatches of stories and memories. The silence of their father after the horrors of the Holocaust, and the early death of their mother, means untold stories linger.

Dear Julian: I am staying in Pest, singing in Buda, crossing the Danube to get from one to the other. Today, wandering around the back streets… where Daddy might have grown up, I actually bent down to touch the cobblestones. They were all rounded and smooth and looking like they were the same ones he would have walked on as a child.  I felt so close to him and so far away.  I think my wings are getting tired… Love P.

Paula, an opera singer, travels to Europe on a professional and personal quest. She asks her housekeeper Sola, tormented with her own story of survival and fleeing, to assist Julian, who is brilliant but enclosed in a silent world of 16 TV screens, and spends his days writing scientific dictionary definitions.

I had a theory that my father gave up his language because it belonged to the killers; he could not live with the sounds of their voices inside his own.  In his new language, everything could be precise and unambiguous, he could speak in the vocabulary of science and never reveal his heart.  I embraced it too, the premise that everything had a reason, an explanation.

This novel is beautifully written, and many of my favorite passages are from Sola:

When it finally rains, there is a sigh in the world because it is such a relief, to finally break open.  The earth spreads its arms to welcome the water from heaven. And the laughter of the angels.

Listen to a great interview with author Elizabeth Rosner here!

triangleEncompassing life and creativity over the entire 20th century, Triangle by Katharine Weber (2006) focuses on “how we tell our stories, how we hear them and how history is forged from unverifiable truths.”

Immigrating from Russia, two sisters worked at a New York City factory in 1911. Esther was one of the few survivors of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and passed away at 106 at the West Village Jewish Home. Triangle tells the story of her granddaughter Rebecca and Rebecca’s partner George, a composer of such works as Sea Changes, based on tide charts, and Protein Rhapsodies. George has “unusual abilities – to see and hear patterns, to perceive the samenesses and the differences that other people didn’t notice, and to transpose those patterns and contrasts into musical forms.”

Rebecca and George seek to honor and respect Esther, at the same time protecting her story from Ruth, an investigative reporter determined to understand the discrepancies between Esther’s and other survivors’ accounts of the fire.

Meanwhile Esther’s story becomes like music itself – a theme and variation, a rondo whose motif returns each time a little more elaborated and explored, understanding deepening with each repetition. As in a symphony, the true story of what happened at the Triangle factory is declared in the first notes – yet it is fully revealed only when we’ve heard it all the way through to its final chords.

icecreamqueenOther stories published more recently and set in the early part of the 20th century include that of immigrant storyteller Malka, who arrive in New York City from Russia in 1913 in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman (2014)  and Addie, who grows up in the North End of Boston in the early 1900s, in the very popular Boston Girl (2014) by Anita Diamant.

wearecalledThe struggles that cause folks to leave their homeland and the challenges they face once they arrive are consistent over the centuries.  We are Called to Rise by Laura McBride (2014) is a modern novel with several narrators. Social worker Roberta tries to work miracles – Avis, mother of a returning soldier turned policeman finds everything she thought was solid falling away beneath her – and Luis is haunted by one young boy and provides a life line for another.

In a  poignant story inspired by actual events in Las Vegas, 8-year-old Bashim’s “baba saw a slaughter right in the streets in Albania, and he yelled at the policeman who did it, and he didn’t run away fast enough, so he got put in prison.” The lives of three families and two veterans is indeed a story that will “break your heart – and then put it back together again.”

What are your favorite immigrant stories?

Hidden gems is a blog series by Cathy Okhuysen of the Public Services staff at PPL, lover of historical and general fiction and contemplative music singer. If you have suggestions for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her at


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