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German Bride By Joanna Hershon

german-bride-by-joanna-hershonJewish Pioneer Women -Truth or Fiction in Santa Fe The novel, The German Bride, by Joanna Hershon, begins in Berlin in the year 1861 where we meet Eva Frank, her sister Henriette, and their parents; the father an established banker. They are a family wealthy enough for household help and education for the daughters. When a family tragedy occurs Eva quickly marries a visiting suitor. Abraham Shein has a business in Santa Fe, in the United States, and has returned to Germany to find a bride – a common practice in the German Jewish community.

Abraham and Eva sail for America. Eva is running away from the grief at home and Abraham is returning to his business boasting a new bride. After a stop in New York City, where they purchase a square grand piano and a bathtub, they travel by covered wagon into the west. The journey across America from New York to Santa Fe is both frightening and amazing for Eva – she had no idea what to expect and spends this time as an observer, still stunned from all that has happened in her life in a such a short period of time.

Santa Fe is very much a pioneer town – there is a main square surrounded by a few shops and homes. Moving from a luxuriously furnished, very grand home in Berlin to an adobe hut in Santa Fe is not what Eva had been led to expect. These were the days of many Jews converting to Christianity as a convenience and becoming assimilated, and although Eva does not give up her religion, she no longer observes it in the difficult conditions in Santa Fe. She is also disappointed because Abraham had promised her a new home – a wooden house – and has not provided it. Abraham is not in a position to build a shed, let alone a house. Nor is Abraham, the husband Eva, prepared to love and honour.

We discover that Abraham has a gambling addiction, which becomes more and more of an obsession. He eventually becomes the victim of the woman in control of the gambling business, as he is unable to find his way out of the situation he has made for himself.

He jeopardizes both the business, where he works with his brother, and his marriage.

We see Eva, after many discouragements, attempting to make a life for herself. She has no choice, as returning to Germany is not an option. I found this a fascinating story – a book I did not want to put aside in my eagerness to know the future of Eva Frank. I did, however, have a sense of having read passages of this book before.

I looked in the acknowledgments for a reference to a book I know, one about the Jewish women who were pioneers in Santa Fe. There was an exhibit in the Museum of Fine Art in Santa Fe in 2002 titled Stories Untold, Jewish Pioneer Women, 1850-1910.

The catalogue quotes women who had traveled from Europe to the American Southwest in the mid to late 1800s – exactly the years of this novel. Some of the women, especially Flora Langerman Spielgelberg, who arrived in Santa Fe in 1875, experienced – almost to a word – many of the experiences of the fictional Eva Frank. I think it is possible (to be generous), but unlikely that Joanna Hershon has not used material from these original stories.

I was happy to discover that Stories Untold is still available, as it makes an excellent companion to this novel, and a fascinating glimpse into the history of this time and place.

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