This book is the author’s first published novel. It was awarded a “Finalist in Outstanding Debut Fiction,” from the National Jewish Book Awards. Mr. Sidransky has been a writer for several years, publishing many articles and short stories, no doubt helping to prepare him for this truly excellent police/mystery story. The author, who was born in the Bronx, New York, resides in Washington Heights, New York, but travels often to the Dominican Republic. His familiarity with that island country and his fluency in Spanish makes this tale believable, so real. But the story is much more than just a “whodunit.” The police work is described with authenticity but the author’s historical research and his sense of cultural divides and unities makes this a book of erudition. Sosua is a small beach town on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic that plays a large role in this story. At one time it played an important role in the exodus of Jews from Europe, fleeing the Nazi purge of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The story begins with an elderly man, Max Redmond, being discovered badly beaten in his Washington Heights apartment. Max has been residing alone but had relatives in the neighborhood, a woman who helped clean his apartment, and Carlos Pabon, a young fellow doing community service by visiting and offering assistance and company to the elderly. Mr. Redmond dies shortly after the investigation has begun. Leading the investigation is Detective Tolya Kurchenko. While searching Mr. Redmond’s room, Detective Kurchenko comes across diaries written by Mr. Redmond. The detective believes these writings may help solve the mystery of the murder of the 90-year old man who fled Nazi persecution in late 1939. They also form a significant part of the book and are elements of a great story in and of themselves. Detective Kurchenko’s family arrived in the United States from Russia. Unlike Mr. Redmond’s son, Steven, Tolya is not religious but understands the rites and rituals of the Jewish faith very well. The surviving son, however, has become intensely religious. He has changed his name to Shalom Rothman and practices a strict form of his religious beliefs, as does his wife and their mentally challenged son, Baruch. The interplay between these two men presents the reader with the question of just who is a Jew, and what makes one more or less Jewish than another? Detective Kurchenko has problems with and suspicions of the son of the murdered Mr. Redmond, nee, Rothman. Tolya’s partner, Pete, is a Dominican, as Toyla’s girlfriend. He more readily understands the deceased, as he learns about him from his diaries, than he does the living surviving family members.
The two stories, New York, 2005 and the Dominican Republic, early 1940s, are so well balanced and written that the reader’s mind shifts easily from one to the other. Not all readers will remember that, from 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic’s President was a ruthless dictator named Rafael Trujillo. Mr. Trujillo invited Jews from Europe to the Dominican Republic in an apparent attempt to improve his public relations with the United States and other Western countries, but he was also attempting to “whiten” the island nation. He had at one time been responsible for the deaths of 20,000 citizens of Haiti, the other half of the island of Hispaniola.
Throughout the book the author makes use of several languages, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish and Hungarian, all with footnoted translations, and all which aid in making this story a rich stew of ideas and modern history as well as a good mystery.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters taking place in Sosua during the early 1940s. We learn from the young Max Rothman’s diaries that he has found his new life in this island much to his liking. He makes new friends and becomes more closely attuned to the residents of the island than his fellow refugees. Rather than spoil the read for you by revealing too much, I will just mention that his new life greatly changes what will happen in his future. And the clashes that take place between the young Max and his co-refugees on the island and what take place later in Washington Heights, New York, between his family and later immigrants to New York reveal how difficult it is to be an outsider, follow your dreams or to practice what faith you wish to practice, even in the United States, even within any particular group of people. But, as the title suggest, the book is clearly about forgiveness. There is a line that is repeated throughout the book that the author makes clear is his main theme; “Life is too short to make enemies of those we love.”
Seldom have I so thoroughly enjoyed reading the Acknowledgments section of a book as I did this one. The author does what most authors do; he thanks many people he has known who have helped him. But then he thanks a man and his son he has watched for years, although they have never met. “They live in my neighborhood. I’ve watched them together for the many years I’ve lived here from the time the son was a toddler. The man is a traditional orthodox Jew and is raising his son in a community that has been here since the 1930s, when his predecessors arrived here as refugees from Germany. The son has Down’s Syndrome. I am and have been moved by the way this man, whose community which prizes nothing higher than intellectual prowess (except perhaps its children), values and loves this child. That fatherly love, pride and caring, is evident from blocks away to someone they have never known. To this man, I say thank you. You made me a better father.” That alone made me want to read the book, and I was very happy to have done just that.