The Slow Way Back
by Judy Goldman
William Morrow & Company, Inc., $24
In her first novel, The Slow Way Back, Judy Goldman addresses the burden of family secrets, the irreversible bond between sisters, and the development of Jewish identity in the American South. Goldman lovingly portrays the intimacy among three sets of sisters in three generations as they struggle over survival, pride, responsibility and privacy.
Her story begins when Thea receives an unexpected package of letters her grandmother wrote to her own sister in the early part of the century. Thea finds an older woman, the only person in her South Carolina town who speaks Yiddish, to translate them. As each newly-translated letter arrives, Thea delves deeper into her past, looking at her choices in light of past generations’.
Goldman bravely attempts new territory in this novel. Though Jewish women in the South have long been neglected in history and literature, Goldman resurrects several generations of Southern Jewish women and lets them speak. Spouses, both Jewish and non-Jewish, occupy an important place in this exchange as well. In giving these women this opportunity to speak, Goldman satisfies both sides of the supply and demand equation: the more we hear, the more we want to hear. Her characters seem to know, intuitively, that the lifework they are doing (both in letters and in conversation) is significant outside of the realm of their small family.
Part of this novel’s sophistication is its delicate suggestion of conscious and subconscious parallels throughout generations. Goldman pursues questions of what is known, by whom, and how, and concludes that bonds of blood can prove more adhesive than any other. Questions, however, persist. One wonders why certain characters are left silent and why certain topics, though introduced, are not pursued. For instance, the death of Thea’s only sister, Mickey, from cancer fails to elicit the kind of response from Thea that one might expect and does not satisfy the author’s earlier standards for characters’ self-expression. These narrative bumps only emphasize the very serious challenges Goldman is approaching in this novel.
Sarah Ann Minkin, who lives in Haifa, is working on a research project about Southern Jewish women and welfare history.