Amid the Smokestacks, An American Dream

Short Stories

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA

By Bathsheba Monk

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $22.

* * *

Cokesville, Pa., is a gritty fictional American shtetl. It is populated by Polish-Catholic émigrés and anchored by the steel mills in which they are employed. It is a place both defined and defeated by the customs of the Old World.

Bathsheba Monk was born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town similar to Cokesville; her grandfather, a coal miner. It is this experience that she draws on in her debut collection, “Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA,” 17 linked short stories told mostly in the wry voice of young Annie Kusiak. But in addition to the inspiration offered by her native town, Monk has plumbed the time she spent exploring Judaism while living in Israel. Through her studies at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and her relationships with Israelis, her connection to Judaism translates into engaging and profound moments in which people attempt to transform their identities — or cling to them — at the expense of their happiness.

Cokesville is a place where the American dream is dulled by pollution and bankrupted by the harsh economics of living from paycheck to paycheck. When one character learns that the steel mill will close a few months shy of his retirement, he jumps into a vat of molten steel; the company sends an ingot to replace the body at the funeral. “No one was surprised to see an ingot in the casket instead of Bruno. Accidents happened all the time at the plant, and people found it as normal to view a ‘Made in the USA’ stamp on a slab of steel as it was to view a face made up with lipstick to meet its maker.”

Although all her characters grapple with multilayered identities, the work turns especially complex when Annie leaves Cokesville to attend college in Boston. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, the reader learns that Annie is grieving over her breakup with her Jewish boyfriend, who declared that he “needed to marry a Jewish girl.” Annie eventually realizes that it’s not Ben whom she misses, but “being with a nice Jewish man who gave me entrée into a special and defined club. Jews were a definite thing. They ate gefilte fish, the most horrible food on the face of the earth, and they all knew it, but they stuck by it, because it was their fish. I liked that kind of loyalty. They questioned everything: right and wrong, the nature of God who could treat His chosen to such an astounding variety of cruelty, which they accepted as proof of His special attention to them. God was with them. I wanted to be part of a people who had access to that kind of attention.”

Annie soon learns that converting to Judaism involves more than declaring loyalty to a particular man and the fish he eats. Monk’s razor-sharp wit melds humor that stops short of clichés with a blunt portrayal of identity politics. The rabbi instructs Annie and an older woman — a devout Polish Catholic who is obeying a dream she had in which she was ordered to convert to Judaism — in Jewish law and the role of their fellow Poles in the Holocaust. His lessons exasperate Annie, who “only wanted an identity. Why was he making it so grisly?”

In a crisp, clear voice, Bathsheba Monk continuously explores the ongoing effect that “living the unexamined life” has on her characters and on the world around them. By the final story in the collection, most of Annie’s generation has moved to places where “you can actually see the sunset. It’s not a tired orange ball falling into a bowl of soup.” Still there’s no place like home, even if it is an America “that hates ignorance, hates excess, and hates misery, yet unwittingly nourishes all three.”

Judy Bolton-Fasman, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is at work on a memoir about the year she said Kaddish.






Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.