By Cecile S. Holmes
Immigrants in Dreamland
Picture Coney Island, land of hot dogs, Ferris wheels and games of chance. American mecca for the bored. Then turn back the clock almost 100 years to the early part of this century.
Imagine yourself an exhausted immigrant. You’ve taken a long, lonely voyage, leaving behind a familiar homeland, family members, the only world you’ve ever known. Your first glimpse of this promised land of America is Coney Island’s glittering amusement parks. You see a world awash in lights that burn even brighter because of your hopeful dreams.
This is part of the backdrop for Kevin Baker’s sometimes searing and sometimes magical chronicle of life in turn-of-the century America.
With a master researcher’s eye for detail and historical accuracy, Baker lures you into a world of gangsters, industrial giants, small-time entrepreneurs and political machines. He unveils a New York often ruled by corruption, with crooked cops, bribery and street gangs.
Baker helps the reader imagine what it was like for immigrants in the days before political correctness and ethnic sensitivity. In the cities near Dreamland—indeed in Dreamland itself—ethnic and cultural realities clash in the confusing mix of Russian Jews, Irish Catholics and other groups that flow in and out of Baker’s story. The principals are Kid Twist, a Jew from Eastern Europe who arrives on American shores as a stowaway; Esther, a humble seamstress and rabbi’s daughter who grows into a union organizer and an ardent advocate of women’s rights; and her estranged brother Gyp the Blood, a rough and ruthless Lower East Side hood.
Day-to-day life is a struggle lived out in squalid apartments. Always beneath the surface of Baker’s narrative is fear. Esther, whose angry father speaks about her as if she were in another room, is like two people: a hard-working factory employee by day and still a young girl with dreams by night.
The supporting cast is as interesting — and sometimes as deluded or dysfunctional-as players in today’s top-drawing soap operas. Entering the world of carnival life, you meet people like Trick the Dwarf, a self-styled philosopher, and Mad Carlotta, the dwarf who believes she’s empress of Mexico.
On the ocean liner that carries one central character as a stowaway, the paying guests include psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Coming to the United States for a lecture tour, they are already at odds over their different approaches to the human psyche. The novel’s emotion-laden narrative is driven by the stories of the three principal characters. But like the circus, Dreamland always has something going on at another level. In fact, at times the novel’s subplots are so complex that the reader gets lost. It is tempting to dismiss them as too complicated to follow.
But Baker’s prose flows so effortlessly most of the time that the reader winds back into the main story after meandering down a tributary.
Cecile S. Holmes is religion editor of the Chronicle.
Copyright © 2000 The Houston Chronicle