21 February 2013

Review: The Tin Horse by Janice Steinberg

review, The Tin Horse, Janice SteinbergEighty-something Elaine Greenstein Resnick was still full of all the spunk and quick wit that served her well during her long career as a Los Angeles activist lawyer. She knew how to argue a case and find a way to deflect the prosecution. But when it came time to face her own family's demons, she always held back.

When the University of Southern California asked her to donate her papers to their library, she was thankful. After all what would she do with all those files once her house sells and she moves into an apartment? With the help of Josh, a student archivist, Elaine begins to go through not only her trial records but her personal papers as well. Josh is particularly fascinated with latter, marveling over the Yiddish letters, the childhood dance programs, and especially a business card from Philip Marlow, the famous detective.

For Elaine, each piece of family memorabilia dredges up memories of her childhood growing up in the once predominately Jewish Boyle Heights neighborhood of LA. But most of all, each is a painful reminder that her fraternal twin sister, Barbara, ran away from home more than sixty-five years earlier, never to be heard from again.

Through a series of private memories, stories told to Josh, and conversations with her last remaining sister, Elaine recalls the complicated history that led to Barbara's disappearance and the effect that incident had on the Greenstein family.

Janice Steinberg's The Tin Horse is a beautifully written novel of a family whose internal dynamics are unique to them yet at the same time common to many families in the early twentieth century. I'm going to be vague and general in my discussion because Steinberg's plotting is so well constructed it would be a shame to spoil the way she teases out the clues to multiple family truths and mysteries.

There are several large themes in The Tin Horse, especially the question of assimilation, both as a result of immigration and of being Jewish. The differences among the generations made it difficult for the elder Greensteins to understand the four very American girls living under their roof. Elaine recalls the family stories of how her grandfather and then her mother escaped the Old World, how her parents met, and their struggles to make a living.

In addition is the strong idea, mentioned by Elaine's sister Harriet, that "every sibling grows up in a different family." Sibling rivalry mixed with sisterly loyalty, especially for Elaine and Barbara, made for an uneasy childhood. Elaine the quiet, plainer twin found it near impossible to come out from under the shadow of the vibrant, beautiful Barbara. And even at the end of her life and sixty-five years without her twin, Elaine has trouble shaking those feelings of being second-best when she thinks of her sister.

Other important issues are woman's opportunities through the generations, the need to sacrifice for the family good, the pressure to conform to cultural expectations, the meaning of love and marriage, the nature of motherhood, the power of family myths, the ability of family to hurt as well as to protect, and the depth of family secrets and betrayals. Obviously, with so many issues to discuss, The Tin Horse would make an outstanding book club selection.

Steinberg's writing is evocative and Elaine's voice is strong and consistent. There is a solid, realistic foundation to The Tin Horse, and the Greenstein family will stick with me for a long time. On the other hand, I'd be remiss if I didn't remark on the ending. After all the careful buildup and wonderfully paced reveals, the novel seemed to come crashing full-speed into a clean and all-to-easy conclusion. That's not to say the ending is somehow unsatisfying but that I expected something more in tune with the rest of the book.

Regardless, I still recommend The Tin Horse, especially to readers who enjoy stories of immigration, sisters, and family dynamics.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio, 15 h, 38 min) read by Kate McGregor-Stewart. This was my first experience with McGregor-Stewart, and I look forward to many more hours with her voice in my earbuds. I can't imagine a better narrator for Elaine's story. My full audiobook review will be available at the AudioFile website and/or in the print magazine.

Buy The Tin Horse at an Indie or at bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Random House, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780679643746
Rating: B+

Source: Review--audio (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 2/21/13, 6:59 AM  

I do love this sound of this and your review was beautifully written in a way to make me want to experience it for myself; thanks so much

Larissa 2/21/13, 8:08 AM  

If I didn't fear that my TBR would explode, I would add it to it, as you make a nice rendition of the general feeling of the book.
I particularly like the ideas that every sibling grow up in a different family, which rings quite true. And generation gaps make for interesting stories as they highlight the particularities of our lives that we don't think about.

Daryl 2/21/13, 12:11 PM  

sounds like a good read .. adding to my list

Sandy Nawrot 2/21/13, 12:14 PM  

My book club is always looking for new, discussable selections so I will keep this one in mind. You have done it justice!

Charlie 2/21/13, 2:35 PM  

Considering all you've said a sudden ending does sound a bit strange. Like Larissa I love the line about different families, it must make for an interesting exploration. Together with the history aspect of archives this really appeals to me.

bermudaonion 2/21/13, 4:27 PM  

Even with a neat, predictable ending, this sounds really good to me!

Robin M 2/21/13, 4:58 PM  

Such a nice review and really gives me the feel of the book. Will add it to my wishlist.

JoAnn 2/21/13, 6:40 PM  

This sounds wonderful! Adding to my wish list - thanks.

Lisa (Southern Girl Reads) 2/22/13, 8:59 AM  

You definitely have my attention with this one. I think I would really enjoy the audio version, as you did.

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