Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987
In 1907, David Schearl, about two years old, and his mother, Genya, are on a steamer leaving Ellis Island, the last leg of their journey to America. David’s father, Albert, came to America earlier, and the family is now to be reunited. Albert displays a coldness, however, that is in marked contrast to the joy pervading other reunions taking place around him. His remarks to his wife and son are contemptuous and accusatory; because he does not want his boy to look like an immigrant, he snatches David’s old-country hat off his head and hurls it into the river.
Like the other immigrants, the Schearls are people in an alien culture. Unlike most of the other families, however, there is a deep alienation in the family, particularly between father and son: David is the immigrant in life who must seek his own meanings in maturity.
By the time David is six years old, his attachment to his mother is important not only for the relationship between them but also for the shelter she provides him from his father’s icy contempt. Where Genya is placid and beautiful, Albert is aloof, suspicious, gullible, and eaten away by a tragic pride. Albert is at war with the world. His great fear—partly based on an awareness of his own foreignness and partly based on a deeper insecurity—is of being laughed at, cheated, or made to look a fool. David’s immature but meticulous consciousness records that Albert’s foreman, Luter, flatters Albert only to be with Genya. He also experiences a repugnant sexual encounter with a neighborhood girl and a terrible thrashing by Albert. In the second book, David watches the courting of Aunt Bertha by the laconic Nathan Sternowitz and listens in confused fascination to his mother’s account of an earlier love affair in Russia. Through these experiences, David becomes uneasily aware of sexuality, particularly of the disturbing fact that his mother is also a sexual being.
In the Hebrew school, the cheder, David’s intellect is awakened by Rabbi Yidel Pankower, a tragicomic figure of classic proportions. David learns rapidly, but one afternoon he is puzzled by a verse from Isaiah in which Isaiah, seeing the Lord seated on a throne, is afraid; then a seraph touches a fiery coal to Isaiah’s lips, and he hears God speak. David yearns to ask about that coal but is not given an opportunity to do so. At home, he asks his mother to explain God. He is brighter than day, she tells him, and he has all power.
On the first day of Passover there is no school, and David wanders toward the East River. He stares at the river, meditating on God’s brightness. The experience is almost a mystical trance, but the dazzling contemplation is broken by three boys who taunt him. They tell him that he will see magic if he goes to the train tracks and drops a piece of scrap metal in the groove between the tracks. When David does so, there is a sudden blinding light that terrifies him. His child’s mind connects the thought of God’s power and light with the electric flash.
David sometimes does not get along with the rough boys of the neighborhood. One day, he discovers the roof of the flat as a place of refuge. From there, he sees a boy with blond hair flying a kite. Leo Dugovka, a confident and carefree boy, also owns skates. He is surprised to learn that David does not know anything about the Cross or the Mother and Child. David desperately wants Leo to like him.
The next day,...
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David walks the long distance to Aunt Bertha’s candy shop to see if she has any skates he can use. The living quarters behind the store are cramped, dark, and filthy. Bertha tells him to get Esther and Polly out of bed while she watches the store, but she has no skates. David thereupon goes to Leo’s flat. There he is attracted to a picture of Jesus and to a rosary. When Leo hears about David’s two cousins, he becomes interested in seeing them. The next day, Leo promises to give David the rosary if he will take him to see the girls. Though uncomfortable with the proposal, David agrees. Leo is successful with Esther, but they are caught by Polly, who tattles.
David is terrified at the thought he might be implicated. At cheder in the afternoon, he is nervous when he reads before a visiting rabbi. Bursting into tears, he entangles himself in hysterical lies fabricated out of the secret in his mother’s past. He says that his mother is dead and that his father is a Gentile organist in Europe. When the puzzled rabbi goes to David’s parents to try to clear up the matter, Nathan angrily blames David for what happened to Esther. The rabbi learns that David lied, but mention of the organist arouses Albert’s suspicion. He accuses his wife of unfaithfulness and believes David to be the child of another man. Genya cannot convince him that he is wrong.
When Bertha arrives, the adults argue violently. David, terrified, runs into the street. Images, recollections, and fears spin through his mind. Finding a steel milk-dipper, he desperately decides to produce God again at the tracks. At first, nothing happens when he inserts the dipper; then, he receives a terrific electric shock that knocks him out. The flash draws a crowd of anxious people, but David is not seriously hurt. Even his father seems somewhat relieved to find that he is all right. David reflects that soon it will be night and he can go to sleep and forget everything. In sleep, all the images of the past—sights, sounds, feelings—become vivid and alive. Life is painful and terrifying, but in sleep he triumphs.