Tidewater Review - July 2010

 

Tidewater Review
by
Anne Stinson

 

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 388 pp. $24.95
The first sentence in Steve Stern’s new book is a grabber so bizarre the reader is shocked.
“Sometime in his restless fifteenth year,” Stern’s tale begins, “Bernie Karp discovered in his parents’ food freezer – a white enameled Kelvinator humming in its corner of the basement rumpus room – an old man frozen in a block of ice.”
The Rabbi’s corpse was created by a flooding winter storm in the late 19th century somewhere in Russia and after its peregrinations was still in a block of ice when another storm in the early 21st century thawed its release in Memphis, Tennessee.
The long trek has many starts and stops, plus confusing time changes both backward and forward. The dead man’s coffin hops nimbly from a shtetl in Russia to the Jewish quarter of Lodz, Poland, until 1907, a smuggled crossing of the Atlantic in the hold of a crowded steamship to New York, a perilous rescue from an ice-house fire in the lower East Side before it arrives in the Karps’ basement in mid-America.
Each leg of the journey has its own generation of guardians of the coffin containing the life-size block of iced contents. The succession of heirs illustrates the trials and small gains of most immigrants, like the Karp family, who rise from rural illiteracy to prosperity in little more than a century.
Stern has made the lineage of the frozen box’s caretakers wonderfully believable. Some of them are also wildly funny. The first exodus from an anti-Jewish pogrom finds the keeper of the coffin trading his aged horse for a woman pulling a sledge through the mud as Cossacks pursue them. There’s the henpecked husband, the dreamer and the entrepreneur in marriage made comfortable by its discord. Their beautiful daughter is kidnapped and raped by thugs, making her unfit ever to find a husband.
An occasional stroke of luck or an unlikely romance enlivens the fates of increasingly more literate and increasingly less religious characters. Stern, however, makes sure the reader never loses sight of the Jewish experience inherent in the story, and peppers his dialogue with Yiddish words and verbal shrugs.
It’s really in the Karps’ basement, though, that the outrageous fun takes off at a gallop. Young Bernie Karp, the overweight, almost dull-witted son of middle class parents, discovers the resident of the basement freezer when schoolboys giggle over the book Portnoy’s Complaint. Bernie checks out the contents of the freezer in search of a slice of liver among the rump roasts and Butterball turkeys.
The sight of the frozen old man at the bottom of the freezer scares the living daylights out of the teenager. He flees to his room and a restless night. Hoping it was merely a hallucination, he returns the next day to the freezer when a violent thunderstorm cuts off all the electricity in the house. Once again, Bernie retreats. Time passes and the big thaw sets in.
The emergent old rabbi is fascinated by television and wonders why Jerry Springer doesn’t upbraid and punish the sinners who confess their myriad transgressions. He is rapt at the sight of gyrating young men and women, half clothed on MTV. As Bernie stashes the rabbi away in an unused bedroom above the garage, the youngster is engaged in serious studies of archaic literature of his religious heritage, quickly becoming a protégé of the old rabbi, who in turn becomes more secular every day.
The revivified old man figures his rabbinical phase is over. Now he wants to be a man of this incredible time and place he woke up in. He recreates himself as a television evangelist.
As Stern has managed to do through all this tongue-in-cheek tale, he makes the reader unsure if s/he hasn’t been conned all along with the fable of the rabbi and the rascal, all in one lifetime...or is it two or three or four? It’s a genuine tour de force.

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friendships & Faith in Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende, Algonquin Books. 287 pp., $22.95
Heather Lende is one of those rare talents that seem to surface out of nowhere to bedazzle folks. She writes from Haines, Alaska, a town that’s barely a little dot on a big, relatively empty state. Her writing style evokes the gentle beauty of Garrison Keillor when he relates stories about the characters in Lake Wobegon.
The big difference between the two storytellers is that Keillor’s territory is fictional and Lende’s is as real as life and death. Life and death are what gave her the intimate insight into the town where she’s lived for half her life. Her four children were born and raised in Haines with an adopted sister as well, qualifying her for familiarity with life.
Her acquaintance with death grew from her job as obituary writer for an editor who refused to print the cause of death as “natural causes.” He demanded that Lende interview the family of the deceased, not merely for the medical condition that led to the demise, but also a brief biography of the dearly departed. He was of the fixed opinion that everyone’s life was a story. Over the ensuing years, Lende was familiar with everybody in town.
In fact, her previous book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, was reviewed to raves and was read aloud and praised on NPR’S “Morning Edition,” and “USA Today.” The little seaside town in a remote area and its enterprising population of just a few more than 2,000 souls intrigued readers and radio listeners. Testimony from someone who loved life in a town with no highway connection to anywhere was irresistible. Haines, they learned, was only accessible by boat. A medivac plane could be called in an emergency.
From her house, Lende can see the Chilkat River, Mt. Ripinsky and is close to the Tlingit village of Klukwan.
The first chapter of this rambling, engaging book begins on an April day, different from ordinary April days only for its simple celebration, Blessing the Fleet, a more or less annual affair in the years that it’s convenient. Lende describes the day as vividly as the opening scenes of a movie:
“...a handful of early April days so bright that the residents of this little seaside Alaskan town crawled blinking out of our snow caves and welcomed it like sleepy bears. Spring fever hit so hard that everyone was smiling and doing their best to push winter out the door. Blankets and pillows were aired, decks were shoveled, and icy walks were chipped off. Anglers post-holed through the snowy riverbanks to cast for the first fat Dolly Vardens. The Public Works Department foreman even took a snow-blowing plow truck to the high school track and carved out a four-hundred-meter oval in the shoulder-high snow so the team could practice.”
Phrases string out and fit together with the warmth and familiarity of a beloved quilt. The tone of the book is not simply a one-note, feel-good panegyric. Lende is quietly preparing the reader for two prior Aprils, neither of them benign.
Two years before the Blessing of the Fleet day, Lendle was run over by a truck. It literally knocked her down between the front and back wheels, and a back wheel ran over her stomach and lap and crushed her pelvis. There’s no hospital in Haines - she had to be flown to the nearest major one in Seattle. Wired and braced and framed into a brace, she spent weeks unable to move, then was transferred to the hateful “Sleepless in Seattle Nursing Home” for another three weeks. She was then flown home to Haines propped up in a wheelchair and wearing a diaper under her clothes for the all-day trip.
The outpouring of concern and practical help touched her heart. Casseroles appeared daily. In her absence, friends had moved her bedroom to the first floor and built a ramp for entry and exit in her wheelchair. Her convalescence and recovery took nearly a year.
When the next April came along, Lende was commuting to her mother’s farm in upstate New York. Her mother was dying of cancer. Her last words were the brisk instructions that gave this book its title: “Take good care of the garden and the dogs.”
Lende’s a lifetime Episcopalian and relied heavily on the Book of Common Prayer to give her strength in her darkest days. She quotes some of the prayers that she found most comforting. The subtitle of the book beautifully captures the message of the whole. It’s a litany to the wonders of family, friends and faith.
Lende writes socials, obituaries and columns for the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Dispatch and has also had her work published in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Sunset magazine and Alaska magazine.