Friday, March 1, 2013

"The Tin Horse"

Janice Steinberg is an award-winning arts journalist who has published more than four hundred articles in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Dance Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She is also the author of five mystery novels, including the Shamus Award–nominated Death in a City of Mystics. She has taught novel writing at the University of California, San Diego extension, and dance criticism at San Diego State University.

Steinberg applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, The Tin Horse, and reported the following:
This excerpt (beginning with the last line of p. 68) comes just before Elaine and Barbara Greenstein's first day of kindergarten in 1926, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The day means as much to their mother as it does to them. Barred from attending school in her native Romania, Mama is determined to make a good showing and has exercised a heretofore concealed skill at cards to earn money for their school outfits--Elaine's, Barbara's, and her own. She's so anxious to appear smart and modern that she's just had her hair bobbed. By the way, Zayde is Yiddish for Grandpa.
We didn’t need to worry about Papa. No matter how attractive he had found Mama’s long hair, his passion was for modernity. “No more old country,” he said.

It was Zayde who murmured, “Your pretty, pretty hair.” Still, Zayde—who was, after all, an older man, for whom Mama had her greatest appeal—liked everything she did. In fact, he wanted her to keep coming to his card games, but she’d promised Papa she would stop when she got the money for school outfits, and she declared herself finished with all that.

The minefield of the bob crossed, Mama threw us into a euphoria of anticipation. She lectured us constantly on how to behave in school: Always respect our teachers. Never hit or push other children. Never, never fight with each other the way we did at home. She patted her hair and tried her new lipstick, and at least once a day she went to the closet and ran her hands over the plum silk of her smart suit.

On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, three days before our new lives as students were to begin, a vicious Santa Ana wind from the desert invaded Los Angeles. The sun scorched everything it touched, and there was no escaping it on streets whose only trees were skinny palms. Five minutes outside, and my head felt like a warm melon ready to burst. Our wooden house groaned in the dryness, the white paint baked to flakes. Papa limped home from work that day after fitting shoes on an endless stream of kids whose parents were making last-minute school purchases, and he lay on the floor as he always did when his back ached—but he wore only his underwear! Audrey wailed so much that even patient Zayde flinched and said, “Can’t you give her a drop of whiskey, Charlotte, to calm her down?” Mama did it, too, because she had a terrible headache; every so often, she whimpered in pain.
It's fascinating to me how representative of The Tin Horse this is. It shows the crowded Greenstein household and some key family dynamics: Mama's over-identification with her daughters and the "we" with which Elaine, the narrator, refers to herself and her twin. There's a grand dream with which life will interfere--on the sweltering first day of school, Mama's new suit will stick to her body. And the book is very grounded in Los Angeles, with its Santa Ana winds and palm trees.

The excerpt also reflects the deep research I did, which included listening to oral histories of people who grew up in Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 30s. One woman spoke about being walked to her first day of school by her mother; her mother was semi-literate and was terrified that someone would find out.
Learn more about the book and author at Janice Steinberg's website.

--Marshal Zeringue