Golden Country

Golden Country

by Jennifer Gilmore, Scribner

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Overview

Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore, Scribner

A LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FINALIST A NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD FINALIST
 
Golden Country vividly brings to life the intertwining stories of three immigrants seeking their fortunes: the handsome and ambitious Seymour, a salesman turned gangster turned Broadway producer; the gentle and pragmatic Joseph, a door-to-door salesman who is driven to invent a cleanser effective enough to wipe away the shame of his brother’s mob connections; and the irresistible Frances Gold, who grows up in Brooklyn, stars in Seymour’s first show, and marries the man who invents television.
 
"Gilmore's lively prose captures both the exuberance and the disillusionment of the immigrant experience."—Entertainment Weekly
 
"With a voice at turns wise and barbed with sharp humor, Gilmore warns: be careful what you wish for, the American Dream can sometimes be a nightmare."—Vanity Fair
 
"Jennifer Gilmore might just be the Jewish answer to Jhumpa Lahiri. Her absorbing novel captures the sadness and wonder of the immigrant experience."—W Magazine
 
"This novel is extremely engaging . . . well researched and charmingly recalled."—The Washington Post Book World
 
JENNIFER GILMORE ’s work has appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies, including the New York Times Magazine, Allure, Nerve, and Salon. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit www.JenniferGilmore.net.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156034371
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/10/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Gilmore is the author Golden Country, a 2006 New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award, and Something Red, a New York Times Notable Book of 2010. Her work has appeared in Allure, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, and The Washington Post. She lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Irving Berlin! 1957

It was Joseph Brodsky, the one person who had never caused any trouble, who did not want his daughter to marry David Bloom.

"I will not have my grandchildren brought up on filthy money," Joseph told his wife the evening after Miriam had called from New York with the news.

Married! Miriam had screamed so happily into the phone. Instantly Joseph remembered her, a girl in a yellow bathing suit on the dock by Sebago Lake, her hands on her hips. When had her bones grown into a woman's body? He imagined her limbs elongating before his eyes as if he were watching the time-lapse film of a flower blooming, a crystal forming: his daughter growing up and away from him.

Joseph had been readying for sleep before the phone call. Now, sitting on the edge of his bed, he paused a moment before removing his shoes. Then he set upright the milk carton he had taken to putting by the bed so he wouldn't have to get up to urinate so many times during the night. Joseph was beginning to feel the effects of age -- the real effects, ones that seemed to rise up from that strange place deep within him where his faith was stored -- and to refuse the marriage troubled him. He wanted to be sure his daughters were taken care of. But David Bloom? Of all the men on earth. He didn't know the boy well, it was true, but history is history. End of story.

"What are you talking about, Joe?" Esther sat at her vanity slathering her face with cold cream.

"Mob ties." Joseph nodded his head to emphasize the gravity of this statement. He thought of his own brother, the day he left Brooklyn for that gang of thugs and how his mother gave all of Solomon's belongings -- his comic books, shirts, his telescope with the broken lens -- to Henrietta Szold. For the Hadassah, his mother had said. And that woman had sent the package back -- a clean cardboard box tied tightly with twine -- without so much as a note.

"How do you know for sure?" Esther asked Joseph.

"I know because I know," he told her.

Only once had Joseph discussed Solomon, and that had been when he'd come home late from a terribly hard day on the long selling road. Frustrated by how little such a long day had yielded, Joseph walked in the door, drank three glasses of peach schnapps, told Esther the story, wept, and then tried unsuccessfully to undo his wife's bra in the kitchen.

"And how's that?" Esther watched in the mirror as her husband dipped his feet into his leather slippers. "For Christ's sake, Joe. Miriam can't be running around that city -- single and loose in Manhattan -- forever."

If only from the state of her daughter's bitten nails, Joseph knew that Esther was right. He could see that Miriam had anxieties. She'd been neurotic since she was a girl -- once they'd had to drag her out of a child's bathtub filled with chemicals. Esther had found her in a ball, coiled as tightly as a pin curl. I'm getting clean, Miriam had said when questioned as to what on earth she had been doing. But what did that mean? My little girl, Joseph had thought when he was confronted with the image of that pink, raw body. And then the image much later, of the girl in New York, a brand-new nose hidden beneath seeping bandages. Her eyes were two bruises on the moon of that blanched, frightened face. This had been the only time Joseph had questioned his wife's intentions.

Miriam might have anxiety, but some of the Brodskys' friends' kids had been true problems. Ethel Cohen's daughter was institutionalized. Drugs, they'd said. Imagine. And Arthur Friedman's boy was a no-good drunk. No matter how Art tried, that boy was always showing up at his doorstep at all hours, inebriated. Joseph knew he had been blessed with two good girls, who had not given them a moment's real worry.

"I just know, Es." Joseph spoke softly, rubbing his head. "Please believe me." His scalp shone brightly, shiny as linoleum, through his thinning hair.

Esther turned away from the mirror to look directly at her husband, one arm hooked over the back of the chair. Her face was a mask of white, but for her eyes, black as ebony buttons, and her pink mouth, drawn up like a change purse. Even like this, like a snowman she looks, thought Joseph, she was a treasure to him.

"Whatever you say," Esther said. "Evidently he's not a gangster anymore. Now the man hangs around with Irving Berlin. Broadway, Joe." Esther paused, uncharacteristically hesitant about what she was about to say. She held her head high as she looked in the mirror. "Do you want your daughter to be one of those girls in that terrible city who gets a reputation as a tramp in her youth and as a lesbian in her old age? And that, mind you, is only if she ages well."

"Now come on, Esther," Joseph said. The previous day Esther had read him something about the problem of single girls in the city, from "Dear Maggie," the syndicated etiquette column that his wife and her friends phoned one another over daily. Especially since the war, Esther had read, pointing her chin toward Joseph, as if it had all been his fault. She's your daughter too, Joseph had told her.

Now Joseph turned away from his wife and to the window, the boughs of the evergreen at the side of the yard sagging with last night's snow. Beyond his yard and down the hill was Casco Bay, where last week Joseph had seen a seal at low tide. Looking up the habits of the harbor seal at the Portland library hours after the sighting, he had had to laugh at himself. How on earth did I get here? he had thought happily, knocking a pencil to the side of his head as he read about molting seasons.

Broadway, thought Joseph. Irving Berlin. Esther went down to New York City all the time now to see Miriam and catch a matinee, and Joseph knew this thrilled her. But Joseph, who'd had to be begged by his wife to move so far north, rarely liked to go back to New York. He liked the peace of his new little town, where he walked to the Penny Wise for milk, removing his hat for the neighbors he passed in the street. He liked his walks through the woods, stomping over moss and earth, the pleasant smell of pine, the call of the lighthouse that blinked in the distance through the fog.

The one time Esther had gone with Seymour and Sarah Bloom, she had come home chattering about the house seats and how the Blooms knew the very best places to eat on Broadway. When they came in from the street, a table by a window was waiting just for them, a flickering candle in its center. She made it clear to Joseph that though she didn't want to live anywhere else but Portland, dinner and a show in that beautiful, beckoning city was a perfect evening.

"Not just off zhe Mob," Joseph said. "Off a people like you and me." He slapped his chest. "Good people."

But Irving Berlin! Joseph got up from the bed, and Esther noticed he did so a bit wearily. He looked up to see his wife rub her own throbbing hands -- she'd had to get her wedding ring loosened last month just so it could slide over the knuckles of her once-slender fingers -- and clutch the bedpost to stand up. Joseph knew he was no longer the handsome and strong man Esther had once walked arm in arm with by the Charles in the late autumn afternoon, scarlet and mustard-colored leaves swish-swishing in the breeze. And he knew his wife had not planned on a man with a mother who spent most of her time on her cracked front stoop dreaming about Poland, a man whose speech would always betray them. And yet, here she was, still with him.

And Esther? She was no longer the slim girl he'd waited for on the stairwell in that boardinghouse in Cambridge, only to walk with her out into the street. Joseph had tried to make her feel that he would always be waiting for her. Slim. That had been before the kids and before the gallbladder had come out; before she couldn't stop with the cream cheese and jelly, with the damn Hershey's. Joseph could see her now, the young girl who left Portland, Maine, for Boston to work at Filene's Basement. The shoes! And the folding folding folding. She complained she would go mad from it and the way the women pushed their way through her just-folded clothes, snapping them open to check for irregularities.

"Irvink Berlin." Joseph leaned down to his wife. "It's true." He kissed her on the forehead, lingering for a moment to feel the mentholated smell of her cold cream traveling up his nostrils and into his sinuses. When he took his mouth from her face, his mouth was a ring of white and Esther's forehead was marked with the impression of his lips.

"Nowhere could you have that happy feeling when you aren't stealing that extra bow," sang Esther, slightly off-key as always.

My Irving Berlin is different, thought Joseph. "From the mountains to the prairies to the ocean," he sang to himself. "My home sweet home." He had been born a million miles away. But this country had been good to him, and though his mother would raise her fist from her new apartment on Riverside Drive and spit on him to hear it, it was true.

"And such a nice family," Esther said of the Blooms. "Very intellectual." She wiped the cold cream from her face.

"They are nice," Joseph said again. "Vestern European." He shook his head as he said this, remembering his neighborhood, block upon block of Eastern Europeans, and how they all longed to be from music, and art, from the land where they drank tea out of the most delicate of china cups. He was walking toward the bathroom. That side of Europe, they had the culture, it's true, he thought, one really can't deny it. And Miriam is in love. But the past. The past.

At the threshold of their bedroom, he turned. "It's a good match?" he asked his wife.

"It's a good match, Joe," Esther said, nodding her head slowly.

Joseph blocked the idea of his daughter's future father-in-law at the "right" end of a gun. Perhaps all the rumors of Seymour's involvement with Solomon had not been true, he reasoned. Perhaps Seymour, thanks to his exceptionally good fortune and his high profile on Broadway, was only a victim of bad publicity.

Walking down the hallway to the bathroom, Joseph whistled "God Bless America." Maybe Mr. Berlin will be at the wedding, he thought. What would I say if I were to meet him? Tell him: our lives are parallel fairy tales. Or perhaps I should prepare a rhyming greeting. Joseph had begun to devise a limerick to make Irving Berlin smile when, upon reaching the bathroom, the image of his brother overwhelmed him.

Bangbangbangbang went his heart. Only it wasn't love now, as when he saw Esther laughing for the very first time. Who cared she'd laughed at him as his hat spun away into traffic? This was an age-old grief, and for a moment Joseph thought the pain of it would split him in half. His brother. It was unbearable how he missed Solomon. Solomon, who'd left South Fifth Street and come back with more money than God. Joseph remembered the kids pitching pennies on the cracked sidewalk and a horse-drawn ice wagon knocking by as Solomon walked the block in a purple suit that shone when the smallest crease caught the light. Even from here, Joseph could see the Williamsburg Bridge rising out of the East River, tethering his neighborhood to the world.

Sol came in throwing cash from his enormous wads of bills clasped in silver clips, and their mother screamed and ran from it. Joseph laughed now to remember his mother trying not to step in the horse manure on the street as she ran from Solomon's money. Selma Brodsky had told Joseph that her elder son's dirty money would scald them both, that their skin would burn as if from acid and would shrink back from their bands of muscle, and what, then, would people see? Joseph had wondered then about his mother's insides, saddened, ruled by fear. His insides? Hope.

As a boy, Joseph had followed his older brother down the street, crowded with horses and carts and boys playing stickball, on the way to Mr. Berkowitz's candy store: Wait for me! he'd called out to him. Solly! he'd screamed. And then, just as soon as it had come, the memory was gone again and Joseph was left gripping the cold, clean marble of the counter.

Joseph splashed cold water on his face and looked into the mirror, shaking the image of his mother screeching like a dying animal as she tried to dodge Solomon's money. Destroyed, she'd say in Yiddish. Mekhule. That was when Joseph had decided he would work hard for money so clean his mother could wrap a baby -- his someday -- in the bills he would earn for her. And he had.

"Joe?" Esther screamed from the bedroom. "Are you coming to bed?"

"In a moment," Joseph said, staring into the glass.

Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Gilmore

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Golden Country includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Golden Country, Jennifer Gilmore's masterful and irreverent reinvention of the Jewish-American novel, captures the exuberance of the American dream while exposing its underbelly — disillusionment, greed, and the disaffection bred by success. As Gilmore's charmingly flawed characters witness and shape American history they come to embody America's greatness, as well as its greatest imperfections. Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, Golden Country vividly brings to life the intertwining stories of three immigrants seeking their fortunes — the handsome and ambitious Seymour, a salesman-turned-gangster-turned-Broadway producer; the gentle and pragmatic Joseph, a door-to-door salesman who is driven to invent a cleanser effective enough to wipe away the shame of his brother's mob connections; and the irresistible Frances Gold, who grows up in Brooklyn, stars in Seymour's first show, and marries the man who invents television. Their three families, though inextricably connected for years, are brought together for the first time by the engagement of Seymour's son and Joseph's daughter. David and Miriam's marriage must endure the inheritance not only of their parents' wealth but also the burdens of their past. Epic and comic, poignant and wise, Golden Country introduces readers to an extraordinary new voice in fiction.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. How does the novel's structure — chapters jumping back and forth in time and alternating between family members — strengthen the plot? What would change if the novel were written in chronological order?

2. There are many references throughout the novel to events marking "the beginning of things." For example, the night Joseph creates Essoil he "could see it then, as clear as the streetlamp outside his window: he was at the start of his life. Everything that had happened to him . . . had made Joseph feel as if his life were beginning just at that moment" (p. 23). Frances recalls her father telling her, "in America, no end in sight. Only zhe beginnings here" (p. 50). Discuss the significance of this recurring idea of new beginnings. How does the idea of starting over carry a variety of meanings for the different generations of all three families?

3. Throughout the novel Joseph remembers his father promising him and Solomon "a golden country," and Frances recalls how "[a]ll the men seemed to walk burdened by that horrible weight of promises made to their children . . . [she] imagined that somehow it was the children who were meant to lift the heaviness" (p. 47). Discuss the complicated relationship between the parents' expectations of their own lives and their children's lives. How do they and their children both carry the burden of creating a better life in a new country? How do Joseph, Esther, Seymour, and Sarah force their own desires onto their children?

4. What is your opinion of Sarah? Is she mentally ill or a product of her background and the time in which she lives? How is she different from all the other characters in the novel? Did you sympathize with her? What does Sarah represent?

5. What is the novel's attitude toward love and marriage? Consider the different pairs: Esther and Joseph, Sarah and Seymour, Frances and Vladimir, Miriam and David and the generations of parents and grandparents before them. Compare and contrast the different relationships? Why do you think these couples were drawn to each other?

6. When Joseph spots Irving Berlin at Miriam's wedding he wonders, "Do lives lived parallel make you look the same? . . . Or do our looks inform our parallel lives" (p. 223)? Discuss the recurring theme of physical appearance. Consider Esther's obsession with Miriam's nose, the way Seymour's good looks help him in the gangster world and the divergent lives of Frances and Pauline. What do looks represent to these characters? Which character seems the most at home in his/her own skin?

7. Describing the gang Seymour and the Terrier belong to, Gilmore writes "Everything was connected, as intertwined as family, as ivy, as roses: punch someone in the gut here, over there, across the river, someone else bends over from the pain" (p. 93). Discuss how this statement is reflected within each of the three families in the novel. Is the nature of family ties altered over generations?

8. Gilmore writes, "Destiny is destiny. Either one stumbles upon it or it is completely elusive" (p. 130). What does she mean by this? Golden Country is full of references and events relating to destiny, from Joseph's discovery of Essoil the night Miriam submerges herself in cleaning solution, to David and Miriam's first meeting at the World's Fair, to the closing of Seymour's first Broadway show after a number of unforeseen incidents. Why does destiny tend to figure so prominently in stories of the immigrant experience? Why is it so important to the characters in this novel?

9. When Joseph dies, all of the members of the three families, even Pauline, are brought together. In what other ways is Joseph the link that joins all of the characters? What does his story represent? Do you consider Joseph the main character, or do you think someone else is? Do you think there is a main character at all?

10. In what ways is Golden Country not only a story of Jewish immigrant life in America, but also a universal story about love and family? To what other novels about immigrant families can you compare Golden Country?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Make Esther's delicious kugel for a book club brunch. Visit http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/recipe_views/views/100318 for the recipe. Browse amazon.com or your local bookstore and check out the large variety of Jewish cookbooks. Host a potluck and have everyone bring a different dish.

2. If you're in New York, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge like Frances and Vladimir did on their wedding night. The lights are breathtaking at night. Learn more about the Brooklyn Bridge here: http://www.mytravelguide.com/attractions/profile-79019305-United_States_New_York_New_York_Brooklyn_Bridge.html and visit the site's links for pictures of other notable New York landmarks.

3. Host a screening of movies set in New York in and around the decades during which Golden Country is set. For example, try 42nd Street or Guys and Dolls for a taste of Broadway, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or another look at growing up in tenement Williamsburg.

4. During the 1959 Thanksgiving scene, Esther and Frances discuss renowned novelist Philip Roth, and argue over his portrayal of the Jewish experience in America. If you've read books by Roth or other prominent Jewish-American writers who have chronicled the same decades as Golden Country — Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are two — discuss how their portrayals of American Jewish life, especially in and around New York, parallel Gilmore's novel. How have these and other writers influenced her? What is unique about her take on the Jewish immigrant experience?

Introduction

Reading Group Guide

Golden Country

by Jennifer Gilmore

Summary:

Golden Country, Jennifer Gilmore's masterful and irreverent reinvention of the Jewish-American novel, captures the exuberance of the American dream while exposing its underbelly — disillusionment, greed, and the disaffection bred by success. As Gilmore's charmingly flawed characters witness and shape American history they come to embody America's greatness, as well as its greatest imperfections.

Spanning the first half of the twentieth century, Golden Country vividly brings to life the intertwining stories of three immigrants seeking their fortunes — the handsome and ambitious Seymour, a salesman-turned-gangster-turned-Broadway producer; the gentle and pragmatic Joseph, a door-to-door salesman who is driven to invent a cleanser effective enough to wipe away the shame of his brother's mob connections; and the irresistible Frances Gold, who grows up in Brooklyn, stars in Seymour's first show, and marries the man who invents television. Their three families, though inextricably connected for years, are brought together for the first time by the engagement of Seymour's son and Joseph's daughter. David and Miriam's marriage must endure the inheritance not only of their parents' wealth but also the burdens of their past.

Epic and comic, poignant and wise, Golden Country introduces readers to an extraordinary new voice in fiction.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How does the novel's structure — chapters jumping back and forth in time and alternating between family members — strengthen the plot?What would change if the novel were written in chronological order?
  2. There are many references throughout the novel to events marking "the beginning of things." For example, the night Joseph creates Essoil he "could see it then, as clear as the streetlamp outside his window: he was at the start of his life. Everything that had happened to him . . . had made Joseph feel as if his life were beginning just at that moment" (p. 23). Frances recalls her father telling her, "in America, no end in sight. Only zhe beginnings here" (p. 50). Discuss the significance of this recurring idea of new beginnings. How does the idea of starting over carry a variety of meanings for the different generations of all three families?
  3. Throughout the novel Joseph remembers his father promising him and Solomon "a golden country," and Frances recalls how "[a]ll the men seemed to walk burdened by that horrible weight of promises made to their children . . . [she] imagined that somehow it was the children who were meant to lift the heaviness" (p. 47). Discuss the complicated relationship between the parents' expectations of their own lives and their children's lives. How do they and their children both carry the burden of creating a better life in a new country? How do Joseph, Esther, Seymour, and Sarah force their own desires onto their children?
  4. What is your opinion of Sarah? Is she mentally ill or a product of her background and the time in which she lives? How is she different from all the other characters in the novel? Did you sympathize with her? What does Sarah represent?
  5. What is the novel's attitude toward love and marriage? Consider the different pairs: Esther and Joseph, Sarah and Seymour, Frances and Vladimir, Miriam and David and the generations of parents and grandparents before them. Compare and contrast the different relationships? Why do you think these couples were drawn to each other?
  6. When Joseph spots Irving Berlin at Miriam's wedding he wonders, "Do lives lived parallel make you look the same? . . . Or do our looks inform our parallel lives" (p. 223)? Discuss the recurring theme of physical appearance. Consider Esther's obsession with Miriam's nose, the way Seymour's good looks help him in the gangster world and the divergent lives of Frances and Pauline. What do looks represent to these characters? Which character seems the most at home in his/her own skin?
  7. Describing the gang Seymour and the Terrier belong to, Gilmore writes "Everything was connected, as intertwined as family, as ivy, as roses: punch someone in the gut here, over there, across the river, someone else bends over from the pain" (p. 93). Discuss how this statement is reflected within each of the three families in the novel. Is the nature of family ties altered over generations?
  8. Gilmore writes, "Destiny is destiny. Either one stumbles upon it or it is completely elusive" (p. 130). What does she mean by this? Golden Country is full of references and events relating to destiny, from Joseph's discovery of Essoil the night Miriam submerges herself in cleaning solution, to David and Miriam's first meeting at the World's Fair, to the closing of Seymour's first Broadway show after a number of unforeseen incidents. Why does destiny tend to figure so prominently in stories of the immigrant experience? Why is it so important to the characters in this novel?
  9. When Joseph dies, all of the members of the three families, even Pauline, are brought together. In what other ways is Joseph the link that joins all of the characters? What does his story represent? Do you consider Joseph the main character, or do you think someone else is? Do you think there is a main character at all?
  10. In what ways is Golden Country not only a story of Jewish immigrant life in America, but also a universal story about love and family? To what other novels about immigrant families can you compare Golden Country?

Enhance Your Book Club:

  1. Make Esther's delicious kugel for a book club brunch. Visit http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/recipe_views/views/100318 for the recipe. Browse amazon.com or your local bookstore and check out the large variety of Jewish cookbooks. Host a potluck and have everyone bring a different dish.
  2. If you're in New York, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge like Frances and Vladimir did on their wedding night. The lights are breathtaking at night. Learn more about the Brooklyn Bridge here: http://www.mytravelguide.com/attractions/profile-79019305-United_States_New_York_New_York_Brooklyn_Bridge.html and visit the site's links for pictures of other notable New York landmarks.
  3. Host a screening of movies set in New York in and around the decades during which Golden Country is set. For example, try 42nd Street or Guys and Dolls for a taste of Broadway, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for another look at growing up in tenement Williamsburg.
  4. During the 1959 Thanksgiving scene, Esther and Frances discuss renowned novelist Philip Roth, and argue over his portrayal of the Jewish experience in America. If you've read books by Roth or other prominent Jewish-American writers who have chronicled the same decades as Golden Country — Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are two — discuss how their portrayals of American Jewish life, especially in and around New York, parallel Gilmore's novel. How have these and other writers influenced her? What is unique about her take on the Jewish immigrant experience?

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Golden Country 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many sagas and this one is about average but it is worth reading. The characters are well developed but the problems of assimilation is not as well developed as I had hoped.