Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb is set among the Jewish community in Savannah, Georgia, immediately after World War II.
I am reading my way across the USA–3-5 books set in each state, with an emphasis on those books where the setting becomes another character, or those that help me learn a bit about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now I’m reading Georgia.
Among the Living is less a World War II story, and more an aftermath story. It addresses some poignant truths about how we treat survivors–both our morbid curiosity and our sometimes misguided attempts to shelter or protect them in a way that constantly reminds them of what they’ve been through rather than allowing them to move forward.
“Best to keep them closed when you can,” she said. “This room gets far too much sun and just bakes you like an oven if you’re not careful.” Goldah watched as her entire body seemed to stiffen. Her face grew paler. “Oh my God,” she whispered. Tears formed in her eyes. “I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t mean that. That’s a terrible thing. I’m so sorry.” Goldah answered gently, “You said nothing.” He wondered how many ways he had learned to numb himself to this. “This is a hot room. I leave the drapes closed when I’m not here. Very simple.”
And also, according to Rabb, our appalled certainty that we would never have allowed this to happen in America, which is so frighteningly relevant under a Trump presidency:
“But you must have been thinking, How can they do this?” And there it was: the question that always came. How this? How could they be so inhuman? But that wasn’t the question they were really asking. What they really wanted to know was: How could you have let this happen to yourself? Surely you could have seen something early on, understood. We would have seen it, wouldn’t we?
There is also a storyline about smuggling and unions, which I didn’t totally follow, except that it allowed the author to show the disparity between treatment of white and black employees. It took a serious injury to a black employee for the white business owner to realize how loyal the black man and his family had been to him while working for both his family and his business. And even when he made the man a partner, the agreement had to be secret and his percentage was much less than a white man would have received (by contrast, the white teenager is promised that he will inherit the business even though he betrayed them).
I mentioned in my review of The Last Buffalo Soldier about the writing technique of show don’t tell. Rabb does a wonderful job of this, rarely telling us what to think about the characters or their actions or words, but instead giving us a reaction by other characters in words or body language, or contrasting them with those of Goldah, the main character. Even Rabb’s physical descriptions are wonderfully evocative:
Standing there, Goldah looked perfectly human. … His suit hung crisply on his frame and lent it a heft that wasn’t his. He was like a sail still holding its shape even after the wind has died away.
That phrase “Goldah looked perfectly human,” carries so much in it, evoking his recent experiences so strongly as to give me the shivers, with absolutely no specifics.
The descriptions of Savannah are lovely too:
Outside the air was damp with salt. Goldah had smelled the sea before but the air here was nothing so bracing. It was the smell of sodden land and untamed growth and, he thought, were he to toss a seed in the air, it might sprout even before touching the ground.
Or the offhand comment, “He lay his suit on a chair and hoped the humidity might let it dry by next week.” As in An American Marriage, there was no red clay, but in Rabb’s Savannah we get the pines, as well as the Spanish moss that I remember from reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil many years ago.
Staircases and railed balconies huddled under a dense canopy of tree limbs and hanging moss. The heat remained, but it seemed somehow tamed here, as if the air could breathe more fully hidden away like this.
The food in Among the Living wasn’t your typical Southern soul food, due to being set in the Jewish community, although there was a bit of sweet tea:
Goldah took a sip from his glass. He did his best not to wince. He wondered why they called this tea. “It’s very nice,” he said and set the glass down.
And, again, there were allusions to Goldah’s experiences in the camps without overt descriptions:
He had worked his way back to food, real food, with taste and texture and heat, and while his stomach had learned to reaccommodate it, the rest of him was having more difficulty. There were any number of reasons for it —…but the simplest was that to savor a plate was to recognize his own worth and that was something not so easily restored.
Because most of the main characters are Jewish, the kosher laws come up a number of times.
Ice cream was off the menu at the Jesler’s most evenings —meat the main course —and, as Goldah was too tired to wait the three hours for the kosher rules to kick in, he snuck away to Leopold’s for a little walk and a thick chocolate malted.
“Well of course we’re kosher,” said Herb, “inside the house. Outside it’s beef and chicken and fish. Wasn’t it that way where you grew up?” Herb was a man who saw his own experiences as everyone else’s. It made him either endearing or a boor. Goldah hadn’t decided which.
Or my favorite:
“…here’s Ethel in the dining room in front a all Miss Sophie’s Jewish folk being asked how come her food always taste so good, and Ethel says, ‘Why it’s the lard, Miss Sophie. It’s the lard.’ ” Lilian laughed quietly, almost reluctantly, as she shook down the jar. “ ‘The lard,’ ” she repeated. “Would’ve been better if that child had said, ‘It’s the Lord, Miss Sophie. Praise Jesus, it’s the Lord!’ You telling me Ethel’s been cooking in that house with lard all this time, even when she’s putting one set a forks in one drawer and one set a forks in the other, and she don’t understand the koshuh?”
I tried to read up a bit on the different sub-groups of Judaism in the book but honestly I was quickly lost, though Rabb gives a little overview in his Author’s Note. But in a way, that’s sort of the point, as the main character really doesn’t see those distinctions as important, given what he’s been through. The distinctions are not clearly made even in the book, except by acts of snobbery by one group toward the other.
Among the Living draws parallels between discrimination towards Jews by outsiders, by groups of Jews towards each other, and by whites towards blacks in America in the late 1940s. There are several scenes where Goldah makes seemingly harmless–human–gestures that were considered unacceptable by whites–such as shaking a black man’s hand when introduced.
“Awful kind a you to give me your hand with Mary Royal, Mr. Ike, but maybe you shouldn’t be doing that no more.” Goldah looked at the eyes focused on the road. If there was anger or resignation in them, Goldah couldn’t see it. “Because you’re black?” “Yes, suh.” “And I shouldn’t offer my hand to a black man?” “No, suh.” Goldah took a breath and thought, Was it really that easy to land on the other side of things?
Rabb does a wonderful job of taking us with Goldah on his journey as he tries to accept himself as a worthwhile human being once more while having to stand by and witness racism removing that humanity from the blacks around him. Many people have drawn parallels between racism in America and the Holocaust, but I think most tend to see the Holocaust as worse. Rabb makes a case for the opposite.
“I know.” “Yes, I know you know. And I know you know better than most. I understand, but this ain’t like what you had in the war in those camps. I’m sorry to say it, but it ain’t the same. They tried to kill you, all a you, all at once. I seen that. But here they kill us one at a time and that’s a difference.” They had never spoken about the war, about anything before Savannah. Goldah had told himself there had been no need. They knew each other, knew the shared silences to their cores. Now Goldah saw how naïve that had been. There was a ranking, even to victims, and severity had no cause against time.
As much as I enjoyed the story in The Last Buffalo Soldier, the writing of Rabb in Among the Living is so much deeper and so delightfully thought provoking!
This was a wonderful book for my reading challenge for Georgia–I’m so glad I found this one!