Tonawanda News

Lifestyle

May 21, 2012

Stories from the neighborhood, and the concentration camp

Tonawanda News — The person with a haunted past is a familiar and reliable trope in literature and film, and perhaps all of us have something about which to be haunted. A book by Lewiston resident Joseph Leary, “Klara,” sharply explains a story of past misdeeds in a well-written and evocative novel.

The back cover mentions little about the author, only that he is “an avid student of history,” and in at least one regard he has truly done his homework. While the plot concerns a Chicagoan accused of Nazi atrocities in his youth, it’s 1977 Chicago, one neighborhood in particular, which is admirably brought to life.

Stories come out of every American ghetto. This one concerns the Ukrainian Village, exactly what its name implies, and it is peopled with typecast characters that are expertly brought out of stereotype by the author. The residents of the neighborhood, like many elsewhere, can be categorized as busy, hard-working and suspicious of other people and things. A pride in ethnic identity is often the flip side of racism, stasis and a sort of social myopia. Transferring everything positive about the Old Country to one section of a city in the New seems an ideal way to get along, until a wider world gets in the way; it takes about one generation for the cracks to begin showing, and another generation to see it fall apart.

The author is not the first to take up a story such as this, in which an immigrant works hard to thrive while hiding some secrets from a past he has tried to forget, but it is in the details that the book shines. 

The constant in this Chicago Ukrainian neighborhood is the aroma. Every scene in the book is permeated with bakery smells, tobacco smells, the smell of people and clothes in the rain. The book, and the reader, is awash in them, the way a reader of a novel on the high seas can hear and feel the waves of the ocean. It is used effectively as a literary device here.

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