September 12, 2013
(+++) SPECIALIZED SENSITIVITY
Greenhorn. By Anna Olswanger. Illustrations by Miriam Nerlove. Junebug Books. $17.95.
A lovely, sensitive little story – not a novel or novella, but a novelette, and barely that – with wide-ranging themes but so narrow a focus that it will have only limited appeal, Greenhorn is the latest of many, many books seeking to capture the Jewish experience of the Holocaust before the very last people who remember it firsthand are gone forever. A lightly fictionalized account of the childhood of real-world people – again, like many similar books – Greenhorn is tender and thoughtful, encapsulating in its microcosmic scope the macrocosmic experiences of an entire people who had been singled out in horrific ways because of their beliefs.
For Jews, particularly Jews in New York who will understand the many local references (“Daniel snored like the BMT train”), Greenhorn will be a bittersweet journey to a time nearly 70 years ago, when the wounds of the Holocaust – unhealed even today for many – were fresh. It is the simple tale of a boy named Daniel who comes to a yeshiva in New York City in 1946, carrying a small box that he will not stop holding, and of another boy, a stutterer named Aaron, who narrates the book – and who befriends Daniel and tries to protect him from the taunts and bullying of some of the crasser students.
The mystery of the box’s contents is the only real tension in a book that is essentially an exploration of the varied reactions of young European Jewish boys just after World War II to schooling and life in the New World. Too brief to delve into the experience in detail, Greenhorn relies on small, nicely formed scenes to reveal character: boys offering to play Chinese checkers with Daniel or let him read a Captain Marvel joke book; the school bully repeatedly calling Aaron Gravel Mouth; Daniel, who rarely speaks, being thought rather simple-minded until he reads a passage in Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew; and the line, “Friends don’t keep secrets from each other,” which inevitably becomes the book’s climactic saying.
It is all terribly earnest, terribly well-meaning and terribly meaningful to the cloistered community at which it is aimed. Greenhorn is an inward-focused book for Jews who just cannot get enough of Holocaust and post-Holocaust stories, for New York Jews still feeling close ties to their city’s post-World War II history, for now-elderly Jews wanting a chapbook to help communicate the feelings and events of a still-overwhelming time to today’s children – who are far more likely, outside the Orthodox communities, to be focused on electronics and reality shows than on kids’ behavior in the mid-1940s. Anna Olswanger succeeds, in fewer than three dozen pages, in bringing a small slice of a now-long-ago time to life, and Miriam Nerlove’s illustrations complement the text very well indeed. The book reaches out solely to a small, insular community, but within that community will surely be found to be heartfelt, attentive and warm.