Travel back to 1930’s New York with new to me author Betsy Carter, as she presents her story of Jewish refugees fleeing the tumult and impending doom in Germany for a new life. Narrated by Suzanne Toren, please read on for my review of
We Were Strangers Once
The real questions that are dealt with here are those faced by many immigrants: how to hold on to yourself and your culture while reinventing yourself in this new life, as someone ‘different’, and deal with the prejudices that are different from, yet ultimately similar to those you fled from? Carter takes us on life journeys from the baby steps that would lead to Nazi Germany, through emigration and relocation to New York, only to face challenges that again will reinforce their different-ness as they struggle to fit in. Less a story of the Holocaust than of the immigrant experience in 1930’s America, we are told the story through Egon’s point of view: his dismay and desires to leave Germany became a need with the passage of the Nuremburg Laws, stripping Jews of citizenship and generally making their lives impossible. He heads to New York, where he connects with old family friends he knew in Germany in a small immigrant neighborhood of Washington Heights. Sponsored in by his best friend and writer, Meyer, Egon’s story begins as we see the struggles with learning English, finding work (he ends up in a deli) and navigating the confusing and senseless discrimination that is both overt and covert, even within his own small community.
A small group of these new immigrants meet regularly to discuss their lives, commiserate and speak of difficulties in navigating this new world. While Egon relies on these friends, and sees that nothing is particularly easy, he also sees that many of his new friends are also isolating themselves from truly trying to assimilate and adjust: comparisons to ‘what was’ instead of finding a new ‘what is’ are common themes, and when he brings an American born girl, daughter of Irish immigrants to their gathering, reviews are mixed. But there is a connection between Catrina and Egon that can’t be denied, and while the difficulties jump out at every corner in terms of their relationship, the connection helps Egon to take chances and find his own path to happiness and feeling more ‘American”. Truly a story of friendship, support and struggle, bringing issues not necessarily at the forefront of the immigration discussion: language barriers, non-recognition of educational credentials, the pace and cost of life, the need to have a support system of friends who are both similar in experience and different. A lovely, uplifting listen that brings an often unhead-from point of view to the discussion of immigration and differences.
Narration for this story is provided by Suzanne Toren and she manages to present the story with a flair that, considering the characters were mostly male, felt natural and authentic. Her flair for accent, the ability to present moments with the appropriate emotions and the clarity of delivery all added to the auditory interest. Where one might expect anger at the situation, there was a controlled and almost ‘reined in’ tension to the speech, the tentative approach in new situations and the relief in the familiarity with friends meeting were all clearly recognizable and allowed me that ‘fly on the wall’ feeling. A lovely performance that perfectly complimented the text and provided an emotional element that I think was intended by the author in the writing of the story.
As said in the dedication: “To Everyone from Somewhere Else”, and truly, we are all from somewhere else.
Stars: Overall 5 Narration 5 Story 5
Title: We Were Strangers Once
Author: Betsy Carter
Genre: Assimilation, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Refugee Stories, World War II
Narrator: Suzanne Toren
Published by: Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Audio
Published on: 18 September, 2017
Source: Hachette Audio
Audio Length: 10 Hours: 2 minutes
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For readers of The Nightingale and Brooklyn, an exquisitely moving novel about friendship, love, and redemption in a circle of immigrants who flee Europe for 1930s-era New York City.
On the eve of World War II Egon Schneider--a gallant and successful Jewish doctor, son of two world-famous naturalists--escapes Germany to an uncertain future across the sea. Settling into the unfamiliar rhythms of upper Manhattan, he finds solace among a tight-knit group of fellow immigrants, tenacious men and women drawn together as much by their differences as by their memories of the world they left behind.
They each suffer degradations and triumphs large and small: Egon's terminally acerbic lifelong friend, bestselling author Meyer Leavitt, now wears a sandwich board on a New York street corner; Catrina Harty, the headstrong daughter of a dirt-poor Irish trolley driver, survives heartbreak and loss to forge an unlikely alliance; and Egon himself is forced to abandon his thriving medical practice to become the "Cheese Man" at a Washington Heights grocery. But their spirits remain unbroken, and when their little community is faced with an existential threat, these strangers rise up together in hopes of creating a permanent home.
With her uncanny ability to create indelible characters in unforgettable circumstances, Betsy Carter has crafted a gorgeous novel that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt adrift and longed for home.
A copy of this title was provided via Hachette Audio for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.