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On a gray morning in 1936, Flora Phelps stands in line at the American consulate in Stuttgart, Germany. She carries a gift for the consul, whom she will bribe in order to help her family get out of Hitler's Germany. This is the story of unlikely heroes, the lively, beautiful Flora and her husband, the brooding, studious Simon, two immigrants who were each sent to America by their families to find better lives. An improbable match, they meet in New York City and fall in love. Simon - inventor of the jigsaw puzzle ...
On a gray morning in 1936, Flora Phelps stands in line at the American consulate in Stuttgart, Germany. She carries a gift for the consul, whom she will bribe in order to help her family get out of Hitler's Germany. This is the story of unlikely heroes, the lively, beautiful Flora and her husband, the brooding, studious Simon, two immigrants who were each sent to America by their families to find better lives. An improbable match, they meet in New York City and fall in love. Simon - inventor of the jigsaw puzzle - eventually makes his fortune. Now wealthy, but still outsiders, Flora and Simon become obsessed with rescuing the loved ones they left behind in Europe whose fates are determined by growing anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Three years to the day after Simon Phelps was born, his father died unexpectedly. Simon's mother told him it had to do with a vision his father had right before his death: "He saw you being snatched up in the claws of a giant bird and taken away. He ran after the bird with his hands grasping at the air hoping to save you, but you were already lost to him. The stones of sorrow set heavy in his heart until, eventually, they crushed him."
Simon had no memories of his father, only a black, formless guilt that his birth was responsible for his father's death. Sometimes he would try to reach back into memory and draw a picture of him, but all that surfaced was the image of a small man disappearing underneath the weight of large stones. He sketched everything before him - his mother cooking, his sister braiding her hair, the maple trees at the botanical garden - and he drew other things that existed only in his imagination. He hoped that by re-creating what he saw inside his head, the image of his father would untangle and present itself to him.
Before she sent Simon away from Vilna, his mother bought him a notebook and some colored crayons. Only a mother who understood how much her son relied on his imagination would indulge in that kind of extravagance.
The family got by with little. She supported her seven children by taking in sewing: jackets, dresses, and pants with seams so worn that the wind blew through them. Of course she made all their clothing, which was passed down from one child to the next.
The future seemed as bleak and tattered as the clothes she tried to mend. It took months for her to scrape up the eight dollars it would cost to send Simon, her youngest and, in her mind, smartest, child to America, where she was certain he would find a better life. Vilna was no place for a child, not now, in 1892, when a knock on the door at the crack of dawn or in the middle of the day could mean that any boy over twelve would be taken away and sent into the army. It could be months or even years before his family would hear from him again. Or maybe never, if he was Jewish.
She promised him that she and his six brothers and sisters would follow. Someday, she told him, after he'd made some money and had a house, he'd be able to afford to bring them to America. "You must be brave for all of us," she'd said, turning her face away from his. To herself, she repeated the prayer that God would help him find his way. Her God would reunite them soon. She had to believe that.
Because he could take only what he could carry, she agonized over what else besides the notebooks and crayons she should pack in his satchel. She made the choice to include her apron because she wanted something he could touch and smell, and for her own selfish reasons, it gave her comfort to think that at night he might roll the apron into a ball and rest his head on it. The thought of how it felt to run her fingers though his wavy hair before he fell asleep hurt her heart, so she moved on to worrying about more practical matters. She stuck in a few coins she had saved because she'd heard that he could trade them in at the money exchange when he got to Ellis Island. She also packed a brown-and-white checked sweater vest that she had knit for him.
For weeks before he left on his voyage, she told him things about America. Of course, no one who had gone there had ever come back to Vilna, so everything she told him was based on rumor, scant pieces of knowledge, or what she wanted to believe was true. "You must dress well in America, everyone there does," she said. "It is important that you go to school and get an education. With an education, you can do anything. And it's important to keep your chest warm and stand up straight."
Simon's mother was not a typical Litvak mother. She was a warm, embracing woman, stout and tall for her generation. The last time he saw her, he was just tall enough so that when he leaned into her, his head nestled in the crook of her arm. He was nine years old.
At nine, Simon was a runt of a boy, the kind who could easily have been swallowed up by the squalor and homesickness that consumed him. When the first-class passengers would throw nuts and oranges down below to steerage, he refused to get on his hands and knees like the others in order to grovel for the prizes. Instead, he'd turn away and put his hands over his ears to tune out the laughter from the people above them. It wasn't as easy to ignore the stench of rotten food, sweat, feces, and urine that stung his eyes and clogged his throat. It was so crowded that when passengers got seasick, more often than not they would lean over and vomit on another passenger before they could make it to a window or landing. When his own stomach ran sour, Simon searched for a place to be sick in private. Only once had he lost control and puked on someone else's shoes, and the memory of it, years later, still made his face go red.
At night, he slept on one of the wooden bunks lined up two in a row with no mattresses, with whatever blanket he could find. Simon would be so wedged in between the other unwashed bodies that at least once a night a meaty arm fell on his chest or someone rolled over on top of him and all but smothered him. The cries and moans of the others were so palpable sometimes he couldn't be sure that they weren't his own. When he thought no one was looking, he would reach into his valise and pull out his mother's apron. It was the kind that ties around the waist, and it had blue and gray roses and a white ruffle around the bottom and hip pocket. His mother had worn that apron every day, and he could imagine her wiping her hands on it after cutting up a chicken or quartering an apple. He would bury his head in the apron and retrieve its history of cinnamon and onions. Breathing deeply, he could also smell yeast and paprika. For those few seconds, he was back in his mother's kitchen in Vilna.
His mother was right about the notebook. During the dreary days on the boat, he filled both sides of every page with colorful drawings of his fellow passengers. He'd focus on a few characters at a time and make up stories about them. The Fatso family slept near him, and although all they ate was the rancid food and watery soup that everyone else ate, they seemed to get bigger and bigger as the days went on. He sketched them all as roly-poly characters who gobbled up chairs and whole lambs and anything else in sight. "They made farts that smelled of gefilte fish," he wrote under one picture. Under another: "My stomach's going to explode."
He thought he would make some drawings of the Screamers, a man and woman and their dimple-cheeked daughter, who was about six or seven. He recognized the Screamers from Vilna, where they had brought his mother clothes for mending. Little Rita hadn't stopped sobbing since the moment they had boarded the ship; at night, her cries were commanding enough to cause the thin planks of wood to vibrate beneath him. In the daytime when she howled, he could see her eyes, wide and fear filled. Her mother would yell at her father to make the girl stop, and the father would shout terrible things back: "I am pulling out my hair. If this child doesn't shut up, someone will go overboard: her or me or all of us."
One morning, Simon came upon the wailing Rita. She was sitting at the edge of a crowded bench and looked as if she might fall off at any moment. He drew a picture of her with a happy face instead of a teary pouting one. In his version, she wasn't sitting on a bench but was nestled in the limb of a tree on a sun-filled day in front of a pretty house with flowers all around it. And her dress wasn't the soiled white frock she wore every day - it was pink and clean. She had a big purple bow in her hair, just like the one his sister wore the morning he went away. He tore the sketch from his notebook and handed it to her. Rita stared at the picture with disbelief then looked up at Simon. "It's you," he said.
That night, before she went to sleep, he gave her something else. He'd made a drawing of her with her mother and father, and once again he saw it through his prism of sunny days and pretty houses. Only this time, he carefully tore the picture into odd random shapes and wrapped them up in another sheet of paper. "It's a puzzle," he told her. "Try to put it together." Rita and her mother and father pieced together Simon's gift, and that night she slept quietly.
After that, Rita rarely left Simon's side. She came with him when he snuck upstairs to where the first-class passengers were taking their morning coffee on deck. They eavesdropped on their conversations, and, for both, it was the first time they heard English spoken. Their movements, it seemed to Simon, were rigid, and when they spoke, they'd move their heads mechanically from side to side in a way that struck him as funny. That's where he came up with the character Mr. Machine, whom he drew at stiff right angles. It was Rita's idea to have his head shaped like an upside-down pot. They'd have Mr. Machine grinning a toothy cartoon smile and saying things like "Please tanks you" and "Mine name es Walthur."
Sometimes they'd creep into the bowels of the ship and watch one of the ship's stokers, a small man with shiny balloonlike muscles. He became the inspiration for Strongman, a character with no neck and throbbing biceps, which Rita insisted that Simon emphasize by drawing wavy lines around them. Strongman would pick up first-class passengers and dump them into the ocean. One of his victims was a skinny woman with pointy features carrying under her arm a tiny dog with the same angular features. As Strongman hoists them into the choppy waves, the two of them are screaming, "Yap yap yap!" and wagging their tongues. Another Strongman victim was a young boy flying through the air, his shirttails flapping around his ears and a wurst shoved down the front of his pants.
The water in the pictures varied. It was blue or greenish or calm or stormy. Sometimes the characters in the background were vomiting. On this boat, time melted into a perpetual gray twilight wrapped around the rhythm of the water and the intervals between seasickness. Only Simon, the Fatso family, Strongman, Mr. Machine, and Rita lived in a world of pastels. On their last day at sea, Simon gave Rita a farewell present he had made for her. It was a series of consecutive drawings stacked one on top of the other and tied together with a piece of string from his own luggage. He showed her how, if she flipped the pictures quickly with her thumb, she could see his happy version of Rita in her pink-and-white dress with the purple bow in her hair jumping up and down with the word "America" coming from her lips. On the last page, in the bottom right-hand corner, he printed his name.
As the ship pulled into New York Harbor, Simon's colors became muted and his images more specific and less buoyant. He drew the ship's bow cutting a V through the gunmetal waters of the harbor. The brick and limestone New York skyline was sharp and angled, a far cry from Vilna, with its sensual silhouette of rolling hills, gothic church spires, and turreted castles.
Just before he stepped off the ship and onto the river barge that would ferry him to Ellis Island, Simon took his vest from his satchel and put it on. He would enter America well dressed. He would stand up straight even as he was ordered into a line with the rest of the children who were traveling alone. He watched the faces around him grow taut, eyes receding with fear. He had not come all this way to be intimidated by these tall and well-fed Americans who were barking directions in English. Compared with the sharp corners of his language, this one sounded lifeless and lazy. There was no urgency to it.
He looked straight ahead as a man held down his tongue with a wooden tongue depressor and studied his tonsils. He tried not to flinch when another one took a metal buttonhook, turned up the upper lid of his eye, and shone a light into his eyeball. This was the moment everyone dreaded. For one thing, it hurt. But more significantly, if one of the inspectors found even a trace of trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection that could cause blindness, they'd send you right back home on the next lice-infested boat. And before you knew it, America would become a fever dream that belonged to somebody else.
Maybe it was the severity of his rimless spectacles, or the gray aura around his eyes, but Simon looked older than his nine years. When he went to the money exchange, the man behind the counter didn't call him "sonny" as he did the other boys. Instead, he said, "Good luck, young man," and handed him back twelve American dollars. With his satchel in one hand and notebook in the other, Simon stepped off the ferry that took him from Ellis Island into New York City, a place that was more vivid than anything he could have dreamed up in his own sketches. People were waving handkerchiefs, calling out foreign names. Some were crying. He listened for his name and waited to see a familiar person. But there was nothing; no one.
The families walked in huddles, embracing and laughing and occasionally throwing little children up in the air. He trailed behind them as they headed east, away from the river and the piers. The leather soles of his boots were thin enough so that he felt every step of the cobblestone terrain. It was early spring, and although there were no flowers anywhere, the buds on the trees were heavy and green, and when the sun shone down on him, he could feel its warmth beat back the chill of his fear. He stepped over the orange peels and wiped away the dust that the horses on the horse cars had kicked up into his eyes. The air was tart with the smell of garbage and manure. He made his way past young boys and old men hawking everything they could fit onto their decrepit pushcarts. "Knives sharpened here," they shouted. "Ripe melons for sale." "Potatoes, fresh from the earth." The words, so new and circuitous with their open vowels and jaw-snapping consonants, sounded more to him like animal cries.
The old wooden shacks and brick row houses here were as shabby and tumbledown as the ones he'd left behind. He kept walking because that was all he knew to do. Every now and again, he reached his hand into his trouser pocket to make sure the twelve dollars was still there. He was so tired that he thought he might sit in a doorway and close his eyes, just for a few minutes. But he knew that a sleeping boy with a satchel by his side and twelve dollars in his pocket was prey, so he kept on going. There were houses that would take him in and give him a pallet to sleep on in a room crowded with others. They talked about that on the ship. Someone wrote the English words on a piece of paper for him, "Boarders, ten dollars a month." He just had to find a sign whose words matched up.
It was getting late and the sun was low in the sky. He looked back toward the harbor and watched the sky change from a pale yellow into a blood red. Light shimmied off of the glass windows like fire and everything was touched with gold. He felt embraced by the light. It was not his mother's embrace, but it had a feeling of warmth, of something he might learn to love. His heart beat fast and his stomach growled so loud with hunger that he was certain that everyone could hear him coming.
At last, he saw the letters whose shapes he had memorized: "B-O-A-R-D-E-R-S eight dollars" a month. Close enough. He would stay here.
The number 262 was painted on the lintel above the entrance. In Vilna, he would have taken the steps two at a time, but this was not home. Slowly, he pulled himself up the stairs and pushed against the wooden front door. Save for a bowl of light coming from a gas lantern in the lobby, it was completely dark. He dropped his satchel to the floor and shouted, "Hallo." He heard voices from above and footsteps on bare wooden floors. "Hallo," he shouted again, trying to sound more authoritative. "Hallo."
After the third try, he heard a woman's voice call down to him. Her words were a garble but her tone was unmistakably annoyed. "Ja, ja," she said, as she made her way down from upstairs with slow, heavy footsteps. He noticed her hands, red and gnarled, tightly gripping the mahogany banister. Her eyes were cloudy and she squinted, trying to make out his form in the darkness. When she did, the edges of her voice softened. "Ein Kind," she said, then said it again, as if she were speaking to someone else. "Ein Kind."
Excerpted from The Puzzle King by BETSY CARTER Copyright © 2009 by Betsy Carter. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 4, 2009
Puzzle King is the story of a few of the fortunate who escaped from Germany to America before the start of World War II. Simon, and the sisters Flora, and Seema all are sent to America as young children, leaving their families behind in Germany. Their success as immigrants is extraordinary as their find their place in the new country, work hard, and prosper. Yet always hanging over them is the question of what happened to the families they left behind. This is a new perspective on WWII, that of the ones who made it out, yet are still stuck looking back.
Betsy Carter writes beautiful, wise, funny characters that I could really empathize with. The sisters, Flora and Seema, in particular are flawed, but likable nonetheless. The plot is an interesting one, an angle I have not read before. Unfortunately the story is choppy, fully fleshed out in parts, then skimming over more important points, leaving out crucial details. We get little information about Simon's search for his own family, about his sudden success as an artist, and about the courtship between he and Flora. I like Betsy Carter's writing style and I think she tried to accomplish something really ambitious with this book.
Posted April 8, 2010
No text was provided for this review.