Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Solomon Gursky Was Here spans two centuries as it traces an extraordinary Jewish family from its shady founder, Ephraim Gursky, to its huge success in the liquor business. The novel also provides a biographer of the family, Moses Berger, who searches for the legendary and lost Solomon Gursky.

The book begins with the arrival of Ephraim Gursky in Canada as the only survivor of the ill-fated Lord Franklin expedition of 1846 in search of the Northwest Passage. Ephraim is portrayed as a trickster who dupes the Native Canadians by announcing that he has come to save them. His story is gradually revealed later in the novel; his history includes time in jail in London, transportation to Australia, and a period as the head of a religious cult.

The central part of the family story involves Ephraim’s grandsons. They rise from running a dry-goods store to become hotelkeepers when Solomon Gursky wins a hotel and a considerable amount of money in a poker game. Hotel-keeping is profitable for the family, but they find their true niche as bootleggers under the leadership of Solomon. Finally, the family becomes owners of one of the largest corporations in Canada, the Gursky liquor empire. At first, Solomon is the dominant character in the family. However, Bernard betrays him when a trial for bootlegging and bribery endangers the family. At this time, Solomon mysteriously dies in a plane crash. There is some question, however, about whether he is really dead.

In this broken family history, Ephraim’s grandsons have many conflicts. Solomon Gursky is clearly favored over the other two. He is taken on an initiatory voyage to the far north, where he acquires some of the trickster spirit of his grandfather. Bernard is full of sharp practice as he leads the company from its bootlegging beginnings to success as a wealthy corporation. The younger brother, Morrie, is dominated by Bernard and submissive.

Another submissive character is L. B. Berger, who begins as a radical socialist poet in the 1930’s. He sells his poetic voice to “Mr. Bernard” Gursky, and he produces birthday poems for someone who represents the capitalist class he and his friends have struggled against. His son, Moses, is disgusted with his father’s betrayal of his principles for money and turns his attention to the children of Solomon Gursky to spite his father and “Mr. Bernard.” His ambition is to write a book on the Gursky family, especially on the true story of Solomon, who may be still alive. However, Moses is incapacitated by his Oedipal struggle with his father; he becomes an...

(The entire section is 656 words.)