As the book opens, Emma Coen’s world is crumbling around her. She discovers that her recently deceased father has lost the family’s fortune in his attempts to provide for two families-- those of his wife and his mistress-- and Emma’s lover deserts her once she is no longer rich. Emma and her brothers, however, possess something greater than wealth: courage. Settling in Arizona and California, they unflinchingly confront the harsh land, war, and the Depression as they rebuild their lives.
Although the main characters are European Jews, their story is quintessentially American. The immigrants in Emma’s boardinghouse discussing the possibilities of creating a better world in a new land echo the vision of John Winthrop, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, and Thomas Paine. The very title of the book combines Bishop George Berkeley’s dream that “Westward the course of empire takes its way” and the widely held seventeenth and eighteenth century view of America as a new Eden.
Goldreich’s newcomers to America have little trouble realizing the vision of economic opportunity, rising to become owners of factories and department stores, shipping magnates, bankers, and doctors. At the same time, they also seem to suffer from the American disease that Alexis de Tocqueville described as “a bootless chase of that complete felicity that forever” remains elusive. In the New Eden, the Old Adam lingers, still prey to distrust, infidelities, and the desire for revenge. At last, though, the pursuit of happiness ends successfully. As the novel closes, a contented Emma, whom the reader first meets shoveling dirt onto the casket of her father, again holds a spade in her hand. Now, however, she is breaking ground for her son’s clinic. In America, death is swallowed up in victory, prosperity, and medical technology.
George Washington commented that Crevecoeur’s picture of America was overly optimistic, and the same fault may be laid at Goldreich’s doorstep. One sees rich Jews writing checks to help their poorer co-religionists, but the latter never appear in the book. Anti-Semitism, indeed racism of any sort, is absent. Whereas in Holland infidelity led to poverty and suicide, in America it does not cause even an unwanted pregnancy. Despite this absence of the darker hues, WEST TO EDEN offers an absorbing story that in places proves powerfully moving.