The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol, W.W. Norton and Company, 256 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by ROBIN DOROSHOW
With the numerous and varied options available to book readers, it is easy to forget just how satisfying a good short story can be. Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, published in February, is an impressive collection of short stories and a notable debut.
The eight short stories are all substantially different from one another, but each one has a common Jewish theme. There are Israeli Jews in Israel, Israeli Jews in the United States, Russian Jews fresh from the former Soviet Union, then one generation removed, and then those further removed who finally feel like real Americans, and Diaspora Jews so fully assimilated they have no collective historical memory at all.
In “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” the narrating grandmother relates her story of survival during the war by escaping through a sewer and ultimately meeting up with a resistance group in a forest. At the age of 13, she met her future husband, who was then 15 and a leader of the group.
With complete and sometimes brutal honesty, the grandmother relates not only her experiences, but also her ambivalence toward her then-15-year-old future husband — how their relationship didn’t start with romance, but rather a fulfilling of a physical need in a time of great danger and the unrelenting cold of winter. She recounts how she was sent on operations to lay out explosives, handled weapons, memorized lies to use if caught and, ultimately, how she lost her very humanity by threatening a young mother and her son to steal their last bits of money.
This riveting story spends all but a few paragraphs in that time of war, but the final paragraph of the story tells the reader that the grandmother’s recounting has been in response to questions posed by her granddaughter. In that final paragraph, the grandmother becomes just a grandmother, no longer a survivor or heroine, but a stereotypical version of a Jewish grandmother where she chides her granddaughter for asking so many questions, telling her that it’s no wonder she has always had a hard time making friends.
She asks her granddaughter why she needs to keep scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you — horrible things that happened before you were born. It’s a beautiful day, she tells her, and your grandfather’s on the porch grilling hamburgers. Why don’t you go out in the sun and enjoy yourself for once?
Molly Antopol is a lecturer at Stanford University, a recent Wallace Stegner fellow, and a recipient of the 5 under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. Her beautiful prose puts her in the category I reserve for short story authors such as Nathan Englander and Pam Houston. I look forward to reading more from this talented writer.
Robin Doroshow lives in Golden Valley.
(American Jewish World, 4.11.14)