Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Books: "A Castle In Brooklyn" By Shirley Russak Wachtel


A Castle in Brooklyn

By Shirley Russak Wachtel

Little A; hardcover, $24.95; paperback, $14.95; Kindle eBook, $4.99

Shirley Russak Wachtel is the author of the short story collection Three For A Dollar, a book of poetry In The Mellow Light, and several books for children. Wachtel is a daughter of Holocaust survivors, and she was born and raised in Brooklyn. She has a doctor of letters degree from Drew University, and for the past thirty years, she has taught English literature at Middlesex College in Edison, New Jersey.

A Castle in Brooklyn is Wachtel's debut novel, and it is a heartfelt immigration story of one man's dream to have a family and build a home in America, a land where anything is possible. There are three main themes that run through this beautifully crafted work, starting with the importance of following one's dreams; the enduring nature of family and friendship; and the idea that home is a reflection of the lives within its four walls. 

The story begins in 1944 Poland, where Jacob Stein and Zalman Mendelson meet as boys under terrifying circumstances. They survive by escaping the brutalities of the Holocaust, by their shared past haunts and shapes their lives forever.

Many years later, Jacob has a new life in Brooklyn with his wife, Esther, while Zalman plows a future on a Minnesota farm. When Zalman travels to New York City to reconnect, Jacob's dream to build a home in Brooklyn becomes a reality. 

Zalman helps build a house for Jacob's family and for Zalman, who decides to stay. Modest and filled with light, the house is inviting and warm, a castle to call home for each of them. 

An unforeseeable tragedy occurs, and the grief, betrayals, and revelations in its wake threatens to destroy what was once an unbreakable bond, and Esther finds herself at a crossroads. Life goes on, as others move into the house with their own dreams. The novel comes full circle as those who remain come to understand the true nature of friendship and family.

Wachtel says of the inspiration for her novel, "I am defined by my parents' legacy. Growing up the child of Holocaust survivors, never knowing my grandparents and with only a handful of extended family members, I came to understand the importance of family and am driven to express this idea in my writing. From a young age, I learned of the horrific experiences my parents endured and their desire to build a better life for their children. Their story is the story of so many others seeking to build a new home in America. I wanted to express this idea in A Castle in Brooklyn."

In this excerpt, the importance and deep meaning of the house is told in Esther's voice: "There it was. Looking just like a gingerbread house from a fairy tale. Constructed of sturdy wooden beams, studs, crossbeams, and braces, the home was designed to withstand even the most turbulent of winters.

"Situated in the heart of Brooklyn, the structure had shingles painted a mint green, windows adorned with stately black shutters, the home's roof pitched, the color a brick red. The pleasant cross gable with its exposed half-timbers, stone, and brick detailing all added a note of whimsy to the picture. Over the door, right beneath a green arch, a plain lantern cast a single golden ray of light on nights when the sky was moonless.

"Once the sun was up, guests, of which there were always plenty, marveled at the soap-scrubbed concrete steps that led to the front of the home, the small, white metal mailbox adjacent to the door, but especially the front lawn. Like court attendants before the queen stood a tiny myrtle tree; shrubs of purple and green; a spray of yellow forsythia; and patches of sprightly pink azaleas, blue geraniums, and lavender. The tallest tree, an oak, could be seen craning its hoary head way beyond the roof, hinting of backyard pleasures...

"This house, this home, meant - it means - quite a lot to me. You see, Jacob, my husband, built it. He and his best friend, Zalman, who was an architect, oversaw every detail - the walls, the plumbing, the number of steps in each flight. It was all a dream of Jacob's, something he had had a vision of since he was a boy. A dream to build his own home, a permanent home for him and his family. After I met him, it became my dream too. And even though we never had the family we hoped -' she paused, twisted the tissue in her hands, and took a breath.

"And though we never had that family, we have always loved the home, or maybe just the dream of it. And we did have some good years here, only I wish we had had more....There was a time when I wanted to leave. I wanted to give it all up. The home was just too much trouble, too big for just the two of us. But now, the longer I've lived here, the harder it has become to part with it."

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