Sunday, July 8, 2018
Isaac's Daughters, by Anita Page
This is Anita Page's second appearance on this blog.
There is a TV series called Penn & Teller Fool Us in which magicians from around the world try to outsmart the titular wizards. This spring there was an extra episode called the April Fool Us Special, which looked back at some of the highlights.
They mentioned a kind of viewer feedback they sometimes get. I am going to make up the details but it goes like this:
How could you be fooled by that man making an elephant appear? If you look at the tape you can clearly see him tuck the elephant up his sleeve!
To which Penn replied, approximately, We didn't know in advance that it was an elephant we should be looking for, and we don't get to roll the tape back for a second look.
Which is sort of like foreshadowing in literature. Once you finish the story it is easy to see the one clue tucked in among a thousand details. But when you're reading it, not knowing where the story is going, you can't tell which of those details is the crucial ones.
I don't think I have given away the store by telling you that Page has some clever foreshadowing in here. You still won't spot the elephant before she reveals it.
The narrator is an old woman, relating how she came to America from Russia at the age of fourteen in 1911. The reason for the voyage is that her mother has just received a message that "your Isaac has taken up with a whore from Galicia." Is it just me or does it seem like Galicia is the most offensive part of the whole thing?
So our narrator's mother wants to find her husband and reunite the family. They start out on the difficult voyage, and things happen.
One of the reasons I started this review by talking about magic is that it matters in this story. The family is divided between the father and narrator who you might describe as new-world rationalists, and the mother and sister who are subject to old-world superstitions, believing in demons and lucky charms.
A question that comes up in the story more than once is: Does magic work if you don't believe in it? Page offers an answer to that in this excellent tale.