One Foot in America is a sweet coming-of-age novel that paints a vivid picture of what life was like for Jewish immigrants in North American cities in the 1920s and 1930s. Originally published in 1950, it offers one of the best literary treatments of the experience of leaving an East European shtetl, crossing the ocean by steamship, and becoming a “greenhorn” in a new land where “the dollar is God.”
Sol Kenner, the likeable young narrator, describes his experiences from the time he leaves the port of Antwerp at age fourteen to his engagement to Beatrice at age seventeen, signalling he has been transformed from a “greenhorn” into a true American. Some of the most satisfying scenes take place on the boat coming over to America, while others, written in flashback, present gripping tableaux of “shtetl” life in the Galician village where he grew up.
Sol lives with his widowed, traditionally religious father in a tenement flat in Brooklyn and leaves school to work as a butcher boy because his father doesn’t make enough as a pushcart peddler to support them. The cast of characters includes a colourful assortment of his relatives as well as butchers, merchants, night-school students, communists, anti-Semitic bullies, and the girl (and her family) with whom he falls in love. Many of the characters speak a delightful Yiddish-inflected English that is sometimes referred to as “Yinglish.”
Suitable for readers young and old, One Foot in America was out of print for decades when Now and Then Books published it in an attractive softcover edition in 2011.
Author Yuri Suhl was born in Galician Poland about 1908 and came to the United States in 1923, settling in Brooklyn. He wrote several other books, including They Fought Back, one of the earliest works about Jewish wartime resistance. He died in 1986.
“Yuri Suhl’s One Foot in America, a long-lost novel of Jewish American immigration that reads like a more Dickensian take on Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, has been republished and deserves a new audience.” — Tablet Magazine, July 2011
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