Tidewater Review - August 2009


The Puzzle King and First Dogs

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

   The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 344 pages. $23.95.
    Here, hot off the presses, is the third novel by Betsy Carter. It’s a semi-fictional memoir based on family legends, about her family’s and their friends’ arrival in New York, from the anti-Semitism in Europe in 1892 and the years following to the book’s conclusion just before WWII.
    Simon Phelps, the rags-to-riches Jewish patriarch of the family, was the youngest and smartest of his widowed mother’s seven children in Lithuania. She scraped together the $8 for steerage passage to America when Simon, at the age of 9, embarked alone. She told him to “always dress well, stand up straight and get an education.” She also instructed him to make enough money to send for the rest of the family to join him.
    That was a tall order for the child, but his mother packed his limited wardrobe and a notebook and crayons, knowing he loved to draw. On the long seasick crossing, he drew pictures of the fellow passengers crammed in the lower decks as well as the swells in first class accommodations.
    After being approved at Ellis Island, he stepped ashore with the $12 his money exchange yielded. Nobody met him when he arrived, but he followed the crowd on foot until he came to a house with a sign that matched the note he was given at Ellis Island.    The printed words said, “Boarders twelve dollars a month.” Twelve people shared two rooms, but Simon was happy with a roof, a full stomach and a kind landlady who enrolled him in the public school her son attended. The next morning, Simon became a newsboy, selling papers from 4:15 a.m. until it was time for school. He continued to draw every free moment and used his newspapers to help him learn English.
    When Simon was 14, he sold his first drawing, a picture of a winning prizefighter. An advertising man offered him $5 for it, which seemed like a fortune. It was followed by a job offer by the same man for an apprentice position at $10 a week, plus an extra 25¢ for any of his illustrations his boss used in ads. From after school until 10 or 11 p.m., Simon drew until, at age 17, he discovered his drawings in large ads in newspapers. He confronted his boss for cheating and he was fired.
    The story shifts to Flora, Simon’s future wife. Just 15, she’s been in America for four years, living with a doting aunt and uncle in Mt. Kisco. Her older sister, Seema, works as an au pair girl with a wealthy family in New York City. On a weekend visit to the city, Seema takes Flora to a dance where she meets Simon. He’s now graduated to the position of a designer of window and store displays. The romance begins and so does the author’s reconstruction of her family’s place in the wave of Jewish arrivals into America.
   “My great uncle invented Monopoly,” the author writes in an essay, The Puzzle King: Behind the Door. “At least, that’s what I grew up believing. But then again, I was raised in a family where mythology and truth blurred. My parents were German Jews who narrowly escaped to this country during the War, and in the re-building of their lives as Americans, they told their youngest child – me – an edited version of their past.
   “After being a reporter for Newsweek, editing six magazines, writing one memoir and two novels, I only recently began looking into my own past,” Ms. Carter writes. “The first thing I discovered was that my great uncle did NOT invent Monopoly. An advertising man who came to this country from Lithuania as a young boy, during the Depression he figured out how to make jigsaw puzzles out of cardboard and sold them for 15¢ a week.
   “The puzzles became a sensation,” she writes. “Time magazine dubbed him ‘America’s Puzzle King’ and he made millions.”
    When Flora was 19, she married Simon and they lived happily ever after, almost. Their one sorrow was that they remained childless. They devoted their energy and money on trips to Europe to finance family’s and friends’ escape to America as anti-Semitism heightened in Hitler’s Germany and persecution of Jews became public policy.
    As the situation in Europe became more perilous for Jews, Simon worried more and more about his mother and siblings. His letters to them were unanswered. Later they were returned to sender – addressee unknown. Simon’s people had vanished and were never heard from again. Flora’s mother and younger sister refused to leave Germany, but allowed Flora’s niece to go, along with her new husband, all his family and as many relatives as Flora could recruit after Simon died during the rescue effort.
    An interesting and grim sidebar to one family’s flight from anti-Semitism is the not-so-subtle bigotry Jews found in America, not only at the turn of the 20th century, but persistently into modern times.
    Carter’s account of her family history spins an admirable tale of courage, determination and success of remarkable people. They were definitely not all angelic, nor was there a demon in their ranks. They were all influenced by a determined man who had a talent for drawing and a huge ambition to do well and make a new home for the people he loved, a home free of persecution.
    Like many with a dream, his didn’t turn out to be exactly what he wished for, but his generosity saved the lives of hundreds of imperiled Jews. That’s a true and honorable, quiet legacy.

   First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends by Roy Rowan and Brooke Janis. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 160 pages. $9.95.
    From George Washington to Barrack Obama, nearly all American presidents have had pets, and most of the pets have been dogs. Some of the pets have been well-mannered, some behaved like delinquents and a few have been more honorable than their masters.
    Face it. There’s no duplicity in dogs. They are what they are, they don’t lie and you can take them or leave them. Rowan and Janis, the authors of this charming and surprising little paperback, are just as disingenuous as their subject matter. No false modesty or pussy-footing about the odd assortment of men, their wives and adopted animal companions who called 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home for a while.
    Take Eisenhower, aka Ike. His main qualification for the White House was his leadership in WWII. That doesn’t inspire hero worship from Rowan and Janis, who blandly write, “During the hard-fought World War II North African campaign, a pair of Scotties had been at Ike’s side. The one named Telek, it was widely whispered around headquarters, was a gift from the general’s army driver and mistress, Kay Summersby.”
    So much for discretion.
    Grace Coolidge managed to extract a rare witticism from her husband, the notoriously “Silent Cal,” when she posed for her official portrait, and insisted on including one of the family’s white collies. Grace wore a red dress to contrast with the snowy collie, prompting the president to remark, “Maybe you should have worn a white dress and dyed the dog red.” For all Cal’s reticence, the couple had nine other dogs, some of which terrorized the White House maids.
In counting off the succession of First Dogs, the authors have added historical content with each administration’s thumbnail sketch. The grouping of successive Prexies into distinct eras could not be more savvy, highlighting trends and political markers that changed America.
    Dogs were also around during what most people consider the dullest stretch of leaders in the history of the republic. Consider this list from Andrew Jackson to James Buchanan. What does the average American remember from history class about Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan?
    To be truthful, not much.
    Well, they not only were dog-lovers, they accomplished significant goals while they struggled with the congressional impasse over the spread of slavery. Interspersed with thumbnail sketches of political issues are pre-photography images of presidential canines in engravings for political cartoons and magazine illustrations.
    Trivial Pursuit fans might gain points by knowing that Buchanan’s beloved Newfoundland, Lara, weighing in at 170 lbs., loved to block traffic in the White House halls and nap with one eye open and the other eye shut.
    And how many historians know that Lincoln’s dog was named - you’ll never guess – Fido. Or that Mary Todd Lincoln absolutely hated pets and refused to bring along Fido from Springfield to Washington, D.C.
    The list of celeb-dogs goes on, from Fala to Bo, the most recent First Dog, whose name is not, repeat, NOT a combination of his master’s initials.
    Dogs are not, as a rule, sophisticated. Rowan and Janis are. They’ve treated the thin gruel of the subject, the hair of the dog, with all the verve the subject implies, with a generous lagniappe of wit and wisdom.
    It’s the biggest 10 bucks’ worth around. This little book is pure delight and a painless source of anecdotes to polish your reputation for clever conversation.