Emily Cheney Neville Eric A. Kimmel - Essay

Eric A. Kimmel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The central issue of Berries Goodman is that of polite suburban anti-Semitism…. (p. 152)

Ms. Neville cannot really be criticized for not presenting a very clear picture of the central issues of Jewish life, for the main action does not involve Jewish characters in any roles other than secondary ones. Still, some points should be noted. Sidney Fine falls victim to a malady common to minority characters in similar situations. Because of the structure of the plot, it is important that he be seen as a sympathetic, regular guy, so nice that any dislike of him is revealed as foolish and unjustified. What really happens in this case and in similar ones is that the character becomes flat. Although Ms. Neville is especially gifted in capturing the speech and thought of children and adolescents, Sidney seems to have nothing to say about what it means to be Jewish in a hostile Gentile environment. A conversation between Berries and Sidney on this subject would have been memorable. However, it never occurs.

Sidney's mother is more interesting, bent on over-protecting her son from what she sees as an overtly hostile environment. But again, we never get a rational statement about her motives. We merely see her reacting, or overreacting.

A far more serious criticism involves the handling of the issue of anti-Semitism, the book's main theme. We are shown the effects of anti-Semitism, but we never get down to its basic causes. The bigoted characters speak of Jewish ostentation, wealth, and pushiness. These are, obviously, pseudo-reasons. Poor, humble, clannish Jews are not liked any better. Yet, Ms. Neville never really deals with this rationalization directly, other than to try to link it to Hitler's ovens. Her refutation takes the view that since Jews are nice people who behave like everyone else, it is foolish to regard them as different and to dislike them for it. Such a view, adequate for 1952, is out-of-date today. It is as if one tried to explain away racism by stating that Blacks are like everyone else, except for a deeper tan. (pp. 152-53)

Eric A. Kimmel, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1973 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April 1973 (and reprinted in Crosscurrents of Criticism: Horn Book Essays 1968–1977, edited by Paul Heins, Horn Book, 1977).