Friday, January 18, 2008

BiblioShort: Rhoda

My own grandmother is a "schwartze" (the German word for a 'black' person), but the old, immigrant woman in Jonathan Safran Foer's "Rhoda" sounded so much like my grandmother that the scene Foer paints literally came alive before my eyes. The scene before us in "Rhoda" is of a dying grandmother being interviewed by her grandson. Ostensibly, we learn that he is recording her story as his way of documenting her life before she passes away.

Rhoda is, as she tells her grandson, an immigrant who came to the United States in the 1950's, saw a "schwartze" for the first time ("I got off the boat, and I'm holding your mother, and your grandfather, your real grandfather, was looking for our bags, and the first person I saw was a schwartze. I thought maybe he had a disease. What did I know from schwartzes?"), opened a grocery store in a poor neighborhood, and, somewhere along way, eventually developed a heart problem.

But it wasn't Rhoda's story that intrigued me so much as her vivid voice. It's so strong; I could hear her talking in my ear, as if I really was listening to a recording:

It's good to see you, from what my eyes can make out. You could be a super-model! It brings a smile to my heart. Your brother is growing a bosom, but you still have all of your hair. Lemme touch it. That beautiful, thick hair. You're so handsome! So gorgeous! My joy! It doesn't matter. You should be healthy. That beautiful Kennedy hair. Enjoy your hair and good health.

Have a drink. Lemme get you a soda from the basement. Go get a soda from the basement. Drink something. Please. For me. I have some orange juice in the freezer. I could warm it up for you... You're gorgeous, I'm telling you. Just looking at you, I'm forgetting everything. I got a tea bag I used last night that's still good...

That beaming pride in your youth and health ("So gorgeous!), that almost brutal honesty ("Your brother is growing a bosom..."), that slightly servile attitude ("Lemme get you a soda from the basement.") coupled with the bossiness of being an elder ("Go get a soda from the basement.") - I've heard it all before. Even the reluctant acceptance of the new while clinging to the old ("It was his life, and that's why I didn't say anything, but it was my death. You can fall in love with anyone if you have to, so why mix blood?) - I've heard that too.

This extremely short story (3 pages) is so well composed that, although I know this is someone Foer made up, I also know this is a woman who exists somewhere. I know, because I see pieces of her in my own grandmother. I know, because I see pieces of her in some of the other older women I've had the pleasure of meeting over the years. This story was a pleasure to read, and an excellent introduction to THE BOOK OF OTHER PEOPLE edited by Zadie Smith.

"Rhoda" by Jonathan Safran Foer, from THE BOOK OF OTHER PEOPLE ed. by Zadie Smith.


J.C. Montgomery said...

Beautiful, touching. I love reading your reviews, but am unsure if I should continue as every time you write one like this, I immediately add said item to my ever expanding TBR shelf...uh, shelves.

Not that this is a bad thing, but I get the feeling my family is seriously considering a intervention.

J.S. Peyton said...

Thanks for the compliment J.C. I think my own family considered an intervention some time ago. But then they decided I was a lost cause, broken beyond repair. Now, they just look at my ever-growing pile of books and shake their heads.

Hey, if it gets really bad we can start a Booklover's Support group. I'm sure we'd have a lot of members. :)

N.Vasillis said...

Great review. The book of other people is also on my list. I can't wiat to get it in my hands.

Andi said...

Thanks for the push to check into The Book of Other People. I've had my eye on it for several weeks, and this review just pushed me over the edge!