Valerie's Reviews > Quiet Americans

Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus
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May 01, 11

bookshelves: highly-recommend

QUIET AMERICANS
by Erika Dreifus

I first noticed the man who would become my husband because he was the quiet one, sitting in his usual place at Sonny’s Restaurant, observing my group of vocal, late-morning breakfast eaters. Later I would learn he had survived horrific experiences while serving in the Army in Vietnam, and that his Irish immigrant grandparents survived poverty by making a new life in the United States. I would also be the recipient of his big heart, his kindness, his understanding, and the equilibrium of a man who has come to terms with his past.
In QUIET AMERICANS, Erika Dreifus has written a collection of seven short stories that in so many ways are like my husband—rich with family history, molded by war and its atrocities, and filled with heart, kindness, understanding, and vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning “coming to terms with the past,” a word found in her title story “The Quiet American.”
These stories, inspired in large part by her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s, more than surprised me. At first, I kept her collection with me, but couldn’t bring myself to read what I thought would be more brutal and painful stories of Holocaust survivors. When I finally opened the book, I found myself so caught up in the stories and the characters’ unusual situations, I felt they were my own and kept asking myself, “God, what would I do under similar conditions?”
My favorite story in QUIET AMERICANS is “Lebensraum,” the story of Josef, a naturalized American and refugee from Europe, who is assigned to oversee four kitchens at a prisoner of war camp in Iowa, where he’ll have to bake for 3000 German prisoners, some of whom will be his assistants. He does his duty but worries that the Germans know he’s a Jew. Yet, his kindness to the men, mostly farm boys, not political, causes them to ask to attend his son’s bris. Their presence horrifies Josef’s wife and the Germans are removed. Dreifus handles the complex emotions of the characters without intrusion of authorial judgment. The reader is allowed to be with these characters to the fullest extent, and that’s what makes this collection such a successful and inspiring debut.
For those who seek another layer, look to the titles of the stories. Lebensraum, a German word that means “living space,” was an important component of Nazi ideology, as it served as motivation for Hitler’s expansionist policies aimed at providing extra space for the growth of the German population. In the story, Josef worries that the “almost endless land of this America” will be attractive to the Germans, and I thought, yes, of course. Josef didn’t know if the Allies would win or not.
If you love surprise endings, read my next-to-favorite story, “Mishpocha.” The ending made me reel. It’s that good. I honestly didn’t see it coming.
I DO hope that Erika Dreifus continues to surprise us with more intelligent, humane, clear-voiced works that reaches deep into our collective history.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary Is this contemporary or Historical and how do you like it so far?
Mary


Valerie Hi Mary,
This is a short story collection set in different time periods, both historical and contemporary. I've read three stories so far and have been touched and moved. They're complex and don't offer simple solutions. As the back cover states they "reframe familiar questions about what is right and wrong, remembered and repressed, resolved and unending"for generations of American Jews. But it's not just about being Jewish. The stories I've read so far made we wonder what I would do under similar situations.


message 3: by Erika (new) - added it

Erika Dreifus Valerie, thank you so much for this extraordinary review. I am especially moved by the connections that you've drawn between the book and your husband. And I'm delighted to know that the element of surprise in the last story "worked"! Thank you again.


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