A Ritchie Boy

Written by Linda Kass
Review by Susan Lowell

“O Lord,” prays the optimist, “please make bad people good and good people … interesting!”

Linda Kass’s lovely novel in stories may be an answer to the optimistic reader’s prayer. A Ritchie Boy is a generous, interesting group portrait centered around the appealing character of Eli Stoff (based on Kass’s own father), first introduced as a fifteen-year-old Jewish refugee who escapes along with his parents from their increasingly dangerous native Vienna to a new life in the United States, shortly after the Anschluss begins to shatter their world in 1938.

Kass tells Eli’s story along with those of his friends and family—and some enemies—in twelve linked short stories that build up to a short novel. This format enables her to shift point of view quite smoothly, so we see World War II unfold through the eyes of various other characters besides Eli, including his Austrian schoolmate, Toby; his American buddy, Hershel; his anxious mother, Lila; his Polish bride-to-be, Tasa; his wandering cousin, Arthur; and his wedding photographer, Eleanor. Eli becomes a “Ritchie Boy” when he’s drafted and trained in army intelligence at Camp Ritchie in Maryland: he use his native German and psychological penetration (and his kind heart) as a translator and interrogator in the later stages of the war, and then he returns to his new American home in Columbus, Ohio for the rest of his well-spent life.

Bad things happen to these good people. Kass doesn’t shy away from the horrors of exile, anti-Semitism, genocide, and war. But she also presents a strong case for stubbornly opposing that darkness with tolerance, decency, friendship, love, and hope.