Book Review: The Tin Horse

15797933Many, many thanks to Edelweiss and Random House for allowing us access to Janice Steinberg’s The Tin Horse. This is definitely going to be up there as one of my favourite books read in 2013 I’m certain! Great read! 

(and seriously, kudos for also sending it to us as an ePub. We cannot say enough of our loathing for the dreaded PDF and it was refreshing to receive the ePub.)

Elaine is now an elderly woman retiring to an apartment building for seniors. She is a celebrated and reknowned civil rights attorney. She is so celebrated that the contents of her papers are being archived in the library at the University of Southern California. Thankfully for Elaine, the university has sent an archival student over to help her sift through the boxes upon boxes of items. Among her professional papers are boxes kept from her mother, a life-time of memories kept in old department store boxes. The contents of these personal boxes is where Elaine takes us on an unforgettable journey.

Her story starts from her very beginning, born as the younger twin to her sister Barbara in Boyle Heights, California. Barbara inexplicably vanished in 1939 when the girls were eighteen years old. No one ever heard from her ever again. Elaine’s tale is the slow reveal of how first she lived in, what she thought of, her sister’s shadow. Barbara is the beguiling and adventurous one, the sophisticated and outgoing one. Elaine is the less dazzling, quiet, learned one. We listen to Elaine’s story about their coming of age in a Jewish family leading up to and including the time around WWII, their fight over the same boy and up to the time when Elaine goes off to college and Barbara disappeared.

We begin the story with their grandfather and his fanciful tales of his flight from Europe over to America. He had to flee as he being a Jewish man that fell in love with a Christian woman didn’t go over so well with the girl’s family. This is where the “tin horse” is first learned of. The grandfather fashioned animals out of tin, a lion, a horse, a rooster…and at one point fashions the same for the two girls. Barbara took the tin horse when offered. We hear of their mother’s flight from Romania to America following a band of gypsies or “fusgeyers“.  The rest becomes an examination of how Elaine (and her two other younger sisters) came of age up to and including the time when Barbara disappeared.

Elaine’s younger sisters only recall it as a damaging time and hold this mysterious Barbara responsible for the deteroiration of their family life. Elaine refuses to view it through this lense. She recounts memories of how she had to piece together fact from fiction and fill in the gaps of her family’s stories. And overall, this is what The Tin Horse offers us, a look in to the many differing opinions of a family’s history. Every family member experiences or recollects events in a differing way. Elaine is fiercely determined to tell the tale of Barbara’s disappearance with indifference to her own life. She is determined to show that Barbara was not a person to be responsible for or that left that big of an impression upon her future life and successes. She also struggles though with connecting the fact from fiction or misconceptions of her family’s stories.

Not why she left in the first place, nor why didn’t contact us for a year or two- those things I can understand, the desperation of a teenage runaway terrified someone would force her to return home. What I can’t fathom are the years and the decades after, when she lacked the compassion to let us know she was all right; lacked even the curiosity to find out what had happened to us.

As we flip back and forth between the past in the Jewish Boyle Heights and in the present Los Angeles, Elaine takes us on the journey to the time her family spent searching, searching, searching for Barbara, through Elaine’s determination to keep it hidden in the forgotten parts of her life to this present moment when she is faced with the memories and the growing need to finally find where her twin disappeared to those sixty-five years prior. “To follow our family mystery all the way to its conclusion.”

Surely, wherever she’d gone and whatever filled her day, she was thinking of us. And her persistence in our thoughts, in our yearning, was so intense, I felt as if we could will her into physical presence, at the very least that we could summon her voice on the phone. Magical thinking. Of course, there was nothing. Then the day ended, and it was September 13, then September 14, and so on and on.

Later, I understood that I reacted so strongly because what he’d just said and the new evidence he’d brought me suggested something I refused to think: that Barbara has eagerly, happily, severed everything that connected her to us. To me. It made me feel blotted out of existence. Not just who I was now, but the dual identity I’d had from the moment of my birth seventeen minutes after hers: Barbara-and-Elaine, “we”.

A wonderful trip through one family’s history and their drama and in one woman’s search for her own identity and place in her family. “Every person grows up in a different family, Harriet said.”

I was thoroughly engrossed the entire time and truly felt wholly connected to the characters and the story. Still. 4 solid stars. Great read with lasting effect on me. And that tin horse has awesome moments in this story too.