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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

That a mother should have such a son as Herbert is a blessing, for in spite of the fact that he never altogether settled into the modes of behavior that Frieda would have wished, still he not only provided the daughters by means of which the family continues, but he also, in time, came to understand his mother, to accept her as well as love her; and he used his gifts to praise her name.

The novel begins at a time before Herbert is born, before Frieda at age thirteen felt the stirrings of a son in her body, when, in fact, Frieda is a baby and her mother, Hilda, takes control to bring her family to a promised land. Hilda’s husband, with a scholar’s mind and proud refusal to work coupled with his insistence that it is the duty of others to care for him, has no desire to leave. He is ready to accept what is his given. Hilda refuses to submit to destiny, and she knows what needs to be done. She allows her husband in his wisdom and piety to say anything he wants to. He can say yes or no, but the no applies only to himself. Her husband goes. In the face of Hilda what else could he do? He refuses, however, to involve himself in any way in the family’s new life.

In Cleveland, where they settle, he studies, goes to the synagogue, and plays chess and checkers with cronies. The children see him as a shadow. Hilda sees him as a “demanding, haunting ghost,” who is to be cared for but ignored in a crisis. Hilda sets up a shop in their front yard, and her children help her, for they, too, are ready to be American. Hilda creates her world through will and defiance and she teaches her daughters, Anna and Frieda, that they, too, can thus be free. She tells them: “Life is not just what we make it. It’s also how we can finagle,” and she teaches them: “learn no matter what you do, you will always be alone.” Frieda learns her lessons well.

A “Jewish mother,” yes. Hilda, too, had smelled of food and soap. Frieda worries and nags and feeds, more than anybody could ever eat, and tries to regulate anyone who comes in contact with her. Her words float through the air in persistent cadence. In time of danger, it is Frieda who acts. The family is at a Sunday picnic. Sam Gold, Frieda’s husband, is gambling with friends. The children have been swimming in the lake, but are now gathered for lunch. The picnic area is swarming with people of various ethnic backgrounds. A mad dog appears.

Herbert Gold, Frieda’s son, builds the scene from his memory. The dog had been on the periphery of the action and then gradually forced himself into awareness until the animal becomes the focal point of fear. Sam Gold looks up from his card game with a puzzled glance. Other picnickers are helpless with desperation, and in their anguish, behave, in Herbert’s mind, like people trying to find safety from Adolf Hitler’s bombs. Frieda acts. With a baseball bat in her hands, she falls on the dog, bashing out his brains. “Easy,” she says, “when you got to live with anti-Semites, everything else is easy.” She has saved Herbert and she takes his head in her hands. Here is a son, not a daughter. How will she transmit the heritage through him?

It is hard. He will not go to Western Reserve and be a doctor. “He’s too liberal arts for Cleveland.” During a stint in the army, he hides certain details of his life, but does tell her he has a girl friend, knowing full well that: first, his mother desires more than anything else a daughter-in-law and grand-children since that comes next on her schedule; and second, this girl friend is not available for marriage since she is already married. Frieda tries to scheme him into marrying; like her mother, Hilda, she will finagle; like her mother, compromise for a greater good. She even tells her son of her own deeply held secret, a divorce, a release from an early mistake; but the point she wants most to make is, “If you don’t love, don’t love; but if you love, love.” Herbert apparently forgets; after he is...

(The entire section is 1,436 words.)