A Must Read!
I was invited by W.O.W.’s (Women on Writing) virtual Blog Tour to write this review for PAPA’S SHOES. It has been my great pleasure to do so, especially because I am the daughter of immigrants, similar to those who fill the pages of this remarkable story.
On the dedication page of PAPA’S SHOE’S author Madeline Sharples refers to her grandparents’ courage when immigrating from Poland to America at the turn of the 20th century and apologizes for her audacity in fictionalizing their story. I immediately felt compelled to experience that “audacity.”
I was then held in her grip from the very first page, as she immediately brings to life the many complexities common to all immigrants – the adjustment to a new world with its new ways and different values – relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children that also change as they have to relocate and reinvent themselves. It is a detailed and marvelously descriptive novel whose pages cannot be turned quickly enough.
PAPA’S SHOE’S is a masterful feat.
As the story begins we meet Ira Shuman who, two years earlier had left the shtetl of Sokolow, Poland for America. Like many Jewish men of that time, he had immigrated to find work, a better/safer life, and a home for his family. They all wished to escape the growing antisemitism, the fear of Communism, and the ever-present threat that they’d lose their sons by having to send them to war.
Once in America, Ira’s anxiety from searching for places and ways to earn a living with his skills as a shoe maker is coupled with the on-going stress of not knowing how his family is surviving in Poland.
However, Ira never expected his wife Ruth would send for him to return before he had everything ready. Yet, she had to do so when three of their four sons died from illnesses for which there were no medications. Not having enough funds, she had to bury them all in one grave.
Totally bereft, she spent her days (along with Charles, her one remaining child) sitting at the gravesite, blaming Ira for having gone to America and vowing never to leave Sokolow with no one to look after the grave of her sons.
When Ira borrows enough money for a return visit, he can find no way to comfort Ruth. To help her heal, he believes that having a baby might distract her from her intensely depressed state and give her something other than the gravesite to place her focus.
Although she does become pregnant, he has to return to America before the infant, Ava, is born. Then, when life in Poland becomes too dangerous to justify staying, she and the children do join him two years later. Yet, she does so with the same anger and depression that she had experienced in Sokolow. She remains glued to her memories and her grief.
As their daughter Ava was so young when Ruth immigrated with the children, we see Ava becoming Americanized more easily than others in the family. The focus of the novel then turns to her as the lead character. She attends a local public school and becomes easily assimilated into an American way of life.
In her senior year of high school she develops a special friendship with a non-Jewish PhD. student, and when her parents become aware of how much time she spends with him, they send her to live near her brother Charles in Chicago.
Only after Ava leaves home does Ruth feel the need to learn English and to develop friendships, so as not to feel so alone and isolated. She loses weight, dresses in clothes that are colorful and more American, more flattering to her thinning body.
Too much has transpired between them for Ira to take any notice. He continues to keep her at a distance, continuing to have a mistress on the side.
Ava, too, is changing. She finds the courage to carve out her own destiny with values that are often in opposition to many of her mother and father’s core cultural/religious beliefs.
Although we are not left knowing exactly how or if Ira or Ruth will ever be able to make amends and forgive Ava, we do know that Ira carries the burden of blaming himself for his daughter’s seemingly rebellious decision, while Ruth refuses to believe she will survive a total separation from her daughter after experiencing so many losses in her life. Each, though, comes to realize unexpected truths about themselves, truths as to what they can and cannot accept.
By book’s end we know and have compassion for each of the characters, as we have been swept into their world and their individual conflicts by richly created, authentic dialogue.
The beautiful, modern American shoes Ira creates for Ava’s wedding serve as a perfect metaphor for this story which, weaving itself into and out of love, loss, and loyalty, hints of an old world view inching its way towards a new one.
“Papa’s Shoes” is a memorable literary accomplishment and deserves nothing less than a 5-star review!
About the Author
Madeline Sharples is the author of Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living With Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, in prose and poetry (published by Dream of Things). She co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1,2, and 3, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines.
To learn more about Madeline Sharples, go to: