Release Date: January 2013
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 352 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
Amazon | Goodreads
Summary (from Goodreads)
After years of resistance to the idea, feisty octogenarian Elaine Greestein finally decides to move from the home in which she raised her family to a retirement community. While she's packing her possessions, she finds a clue to the whereabouts of her twin sister, who disappeared from the little-known Jewish mecca of Boyle Heights on the eve of WWII when the girls were eighteen. Plunging back into memories of her childhood and the momentous historical facts that impacted her family, Elaine recalls her family's stories - those from the Old Country, and tales of immigration travails, and the heartache of being the "smart" one of the twins instead of the "popular" one.
In an utterly unforgettable, salty voice, Elaine revives the memories of growing up with her twin sister Barbara, her parents, her Zayde, her aunts and her younger sisters as the Greensteins bear the disappointments, heartbreaks, and fallout from the immigrant baggage that they have been unable to shed despite settling in Southern California - the land of sunshine and opportunity, fig trees and equality.
Thoughts on The Tin Horse
In her eighties, Elaine Greenstein is finally in the process of moving into a retirement home. Opening in the present day, readers first meet Elaine as she's packing up and organizing the many things she's collected over her life. Because she is a well-known attorney, her alma mater has sent an archivist, Josh, to help her go through her papers and decide what will be donated to the university.
It's during this process that Elaine and Josh stumble upon the business card of a private detective. And that's when we learn that many years earlier Elaine's twin sister, Barbara, ran away and was never heard from again. This moment unleashes a flood of memories and is the catalyst for Elaine's tale.
While Elaine narrates the whole book, the story frequently jumps between past and present. She tells stories from her childhood growing up in Boyle Heights, a Jewish community in Los Angeles. Most of her stories occur in the 1920s and 1930s, and these sections are particularly fascinating. I loved reading about this community of immigrants and her life there! Elaine focuses her stories on the events leading up to Barbara running away, but there is little information about the aftermath. You don't get a full picture of how her sister's disappearance has affected her and her family's lives, and I actually would have liked to learn a little bit more about that time in her story.
I can't think of another book that I've read that focuses on a Jewish community of immigrants in the United States, particularly during this time period. From the anti-Semitic attitudes of the people around them to the questions of how to assimilate into a new culture without losing the things that make you unique, this was a really thought-provoking read.
Much of the novel has the feel of a mystery - present-day Elaine is trying to piece together clues and find her sister. And the pieces of the past are like a puzzle. Elaine is telling her family history, and it becomes a way to lay the groundwork for revealing what it was that prompted her sister to run away in the first place.
I think this may be the first time I've said this about a book, but what I liked about The Tin Horse was also what I disliked about it at times. Here's what I mean by that: I really enjoyed but was also occasionally annoyed that it was narrated by Elaine in her eighties. While reading, it gave me this feeling like I was sitting down with a grandparent and hearing stories that make the past come alive. That was the part I liked.
But, in the same way, it also felt like sitting down with a grandparent and not always being entirely sure where a story is going and sometimes wishing they would get to the point. It's a story that relies more on exposition than on dialogue or action. While it makes they story very personal, it can also seem a bit tedious and slow. It also made the ending, which takes place in the present, feel a bit rushed. There is a lot of lead up for what actually happens.
I say all of this not to discourage anyone from reading it, but merely to identify the aspect of the book (pacing) that left me more with the "I liked it" feeling rather than the "I loved it" feeling. It's compared to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in a blurb, but I don't think that the comparison quite fits. It's somewhat similar in themes, but very different in the details and execution. The Tin Horse is, for me at least, a story unlike any other I've ever read. What I truly enjoyed about this book was being able to read about a time in U.S. history from a Jewish perspective, and I think it will certainly open your eyes to a potentially unfamiliar part of this country's history.
"I came to see my mother's luck that day as emblematic of her immigration to America. In the small details, she would succeed. It was the big things that would break her heart."
*I received a copy of this book from Random House in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.