Elyce Wakerman’s A Tale of Two Citizens is an immigrant story based in the thirties and forties that rings true in today’s over-heated immigrant debate.
Harry Himelbaum is a twenty year old Polish immigrant who must tell a lie (that he is not married) in order to enter the United States. The lie eats at him, but he tells it to start a new life away from the oppression in Europe. Nearly a decade after telling the lie, Harry is forced to address the lie when he applies for visa papers for his wife and son.
The man who discovers the lie and tries to deport Harry is Will Brown, a federal government attorney who zealously pursues immigrants who lied to immigrate to the U.S. Will tries to uphold the nation’s laws and keep his country “pure.” Unbeknownst to Will, his wife Barbara has some affection for Harry from previous encounters in New York City – this complicates things.
Intertwined in this struggle are the lives of Harry’s family in Poland and Will’s parents in Iowa. Wakerman weaves into the main plot both family’s struggles to avoid persecution in Poland (in the case of the Himelbaums) and survive in the Great Depression (in the case of the Browns).
The book is based on the true story of Wakerman’s father, this heart-wrenching clash of love and loyalties is a picture of an America torn between being a symbol of hope for immigrants and a proud nation fighting to re-create itself. Wakerman captures the anxieties of native Americans as they struggle to survive the Great Depression and compete for scarce jobs with immigrant Americans.
In many works of fiction (especially historical ones), I try to put myself in the shoes of the main characters. I can relate to some of Will’s beliefs. But, I also can relate to Harry’s efforts as well. Although Will is portrayed in a more brutal light, his thoughts and actions at the time were typical of many Americans. Those thoughts are one of the main reasons why the MS St. Louis full of Jewish refugees seeking refuge in the U.S. was turned back in 1939.
On the contrary, a person cannot condemn Harry for his actions. He was trying to establish a new life in a country that was more equal than his old country. He may not have been truthful, but he was doing what he thought was best for his family.
Just as back in the thirties, the debate continues today.
Wakerman does a fine job of trying to portray both sides. The book is a good read.