A Book of Great Worth

3 October 2012

A Book of Great Worth
by Dave Margoshes
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Michelle Shaw
$18.95 ISBN 9 781550 504767

On the surface, award-winning Saskatchewan-based author Dave Margoshes’s latest offering is a beautifully written collection of biographical stories about his father’s life. Except that the stories are fiction. Although based, says Margoshes, on “a seed of truth” and imbued with “the persona and personality of [my] father”, they are all fiction.

The result is a selection of carefully crafted tales, written over a number of years, which relate various incidents in his father’s life. Margoshes says he “worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir — like truth…[he] also worked hard to imbue these stories with a tension created by that unstated question of how the narrator came to know not just the stories, in their broad strokes, but the fine details.”

He succeeded. At first I was consciously trying to work out what was true but I soon found myself enveloped in the stories. Most of the book is set in New York City in the early decades of the twentieth century. Margoshes crafts an almost sensory experience for the reader through his easy familiarity with street names, snippets of geographical and sociological detail and a sense of the community that lived there during that time. Harry Morgenstern is a reporter on The Day, the Yiddish-language daily that relates “the toils and joys of Jewish life in New York”. Although he dabbled in other types of journalism, even writing an advice column at one stage (as related in The Wisdom of Solomon), most of the book concerns Harry’s work as a labour journalist covering the often tumultuous world of unions and strikes.

From the opening lines of each chapter, my interest was piqued. “Feathers and Blood” begins: “One day in the spring of 1927, on the same day that Lindbergh was crossing the Atlantic, a young woman by the name of Rebeccah Kristol sent my father a letter from Cleveland with the message: ‘Now.’” I dutifully swallowed the hook of a master storyteller and read on to discover the reason behind the enigmatic letter. Another story, “The Proposition”, begins with the words: “’I did something stupid,’ the rabbi told my father,” and I was immediately plunged into the dilemma of Lev Bronstyn with his “long, often damp nose and prominent ears which combined to make his head appear larger than normal”.

Margoshes’ characters come to life through his detailed descriptions. Harry’s friend, the bookseller Fushgo, for example, is described as “an older fellow, permanently shaded grey from the settled dust in his shop.” Even the dubious Shmelke is given a poignancy as Margoshes describes how he “sighed deeply, the breath rattling through his chest like a cold wind through dead branches”.

I found A Book of Great Worth a captivating read and I was delighted to be introduced to Dave Margoshes’ father. In a fictional sort of way.


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