A Far Piece to Canaan
Young Sam Zelinsky is the son of Jewish sharecroppers in Kentucky in 1945—a situation that author Sam Halpern writes about with authority, since he grew up the son of Jewish sharecroppers in Kentucky. He tells his story mostly through flashbacks from the present day as his protagonist Zelinsky, now a grieving, retired professor, finally returns to Kentucky, as his wife had asked him to do before she died.
Zelinsky is looking for his boyhood friend, Fred Mulligan, who has disappeared as completely as most of the shanty-like farmhouses that their families had lived in. He’s also looking for answers about his life and choices, at last revisiting the place and culture that shaped him. Rural Kentucky in 1945 amounts to a foreign land, and Zelinsky’s childhood included demon-haunted pools, a friend’s father who everyone realized might beat his son to death, poverty accepted without complaint (because everyone was poor), incipient mobs looking for the guilty (or at least a scapegoat), wide-ranging freedoms and responsibilities that most modern-day boys can only imagine, and, luckily for our protagonist, wise mentors, including his own father, who teach him how to be a man in the face of danger and moral quandaries.
Author Halpern, a retired physician, became famous as a character before he wrote this book: he’s the dad in Sh*t My Dad Says. That’s his son Justin Halpern’s popular twitter feed, book, and (briefly) sitcom. The older, already famous Halpern no doubt had an entrée to agents and publishers, but this is a heart-touching and memorable story that deserved to be published. It’s both a coming of age novel and a tale of redemption, of righting old sins. I loved it and absolutely recommend it.