Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Crime Fiction: The Bones and the Book
by Jane Isenberg

It’s not unusual for a historical mystery to be set within a contemporary one. But in The Bones and the Book (Oconee Spirit Press), Jane Isenberg puts a twist on this configuration.

There is indeed an inner story and an outer one here. But this time, both stories are set in the past, which demands rather more of the reader.

The inner -- that is, older -- story concerns Aliza Rudinsk, a young Orthodox Jewish immigrant who leaves the Russian Ukraine in 1890, hoping to find greater happiness in America. When her bones mysteriously turn up in Seattle’s underground streets in 1965, Rachel Mazursky, recently widowed and in need of money, agrees to translate Aliza’s Yiddish diary into English. Rachel winds up anchoring the outer, more recent, story.

As far as I can tell, the main reason for setting Rachel’s story in 1965 is that some people involved in Aliza’s life may be still be alive themselves. That’s necessary for the plot, but not so satisfying for the reader.

Aliza’s life turns out to have been full of toil and trouble -- not surprising, considering the era in which she lived and her particular circumstances. She finds that it’s hard to earn a decent wage during the Gilded Age, even for a talented seamstress like her. It’s hard to find a good man. And it’s hard to make your way in a new country when you are alone and miss your family.

In contrast, Rachel’s existence is much easier, though she has often felt marginalized as an Orthodox Jew in a city where anti-Semitism was once common. Her discoveries about her late husband leave her questioning a lot of what she thought she believed, and difficulties grow between her and her college-age daughter.

The parallel story of Aliza, who evolves into “Fanny,” is by far the more interesting, fleshing out the immigrant experience in a visceral way. Even though we know that she’ll end up dead in the darkness below the streets of Seattle, we root for her as she crosses the United States to try and improve her situation.

Rachel’s story is more ordinary. The arrival in town of an old friend precipitates a crisis; unfortunately, the reader sees it coming long before Rachel does.

But author Isenberg is also exploring a bigger issue here, that of assimilation. As each immigrant group finds its way into the cultural mainstream, the question remains: how long does it take and how much of what makes it unique gets lost in the process?

We are reminded that in every group there are outsiders. Sometimes the cruelest blows come from members of one’s own group who are well along in the assimilation process and no longer want the bother and embarrassment of coping with uneducated newbies with dirty nails.

We do learn at the end of The Bones and the Book just how Aliza/Fanny was killed, but the answer is contrived and less interesting than the journey we took to get there. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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