Off the Shelf: Troubled times and troubled children

 by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Parents and children: that can be a volatile mix, whether it’s due to differing politics or different views on the correct way to live. For example, in David Laskin’s “What Sammy Knew” (Penguin Books), the political clash between Sam Stein and his father causes a rift that echoes through the lives of many. Yaara Shehori’s “Aquarium” (Farrar, Straus and Grioux) shows how sisters Lili and Dori Ackerman’s lives are forever affected by one parental choice. 

“What Sammy Knew” takes place in the early 1970s when the generations clashed about the Vietnam War, civil rights, drugs, sex and music. Sam figures the second part of his senior year of high school should be an easy time. Although he’s sheltered in the Long Island Jewish community in which he lives. Sam is aware of politics and the civil rights movement, but rarely thinks about how that affects his beloved Tutu, his parents’ African American live-in maid whom he feels really raised him. But life changes after he meets Kim, a beautiful, fiery young woman who takes politics personally and fought with her own parents about the Black power movement and their treatment of the African American maid who works for them. But when Sam’s father gives him an ultimatum – accept our rules or leave – Sam does just that: he leaves and moves with Kim to New York City where they stay with an older friend whose life focuses on drugs, fame and looking cool.

While Sam’s life is not that different – he still attends school and plans for a future as a writer – Kim becomes more involved in radical politics. This is a time of increased violence and she is looking to make her mark, particularly with the Black Panther Movement. However, Sam disavows violence, saying that bombs and guns make them just as guilty as the people they are fighting against. He does want to better understand Tutu’s life outside his former home, especially her adult grandson, Leon, whom he never knew existed. But Sam’s inability to understand Kim’s desires may have disastrous results not only for herself, but Sam, Leon and Tutu. 

Sam is an interesting character, partly because of his inability to truly understand the forces affecting those around him. His self-absorption is typical of many teenagers his age, and his decisions are too easily influenced by his friends. Yet, Sam does want to learn more – to see below the surface – even if he’s only partly successful. One decision he does make late in the novel shows his true character, which also made the novel’s ending extremely satisfying.

While “What Sammy Knew” takes place in the recent past, “Aquarium” takes place in Israel in contemporary times. Lili and Dori Ackerman, and their parents, Alex and Anna, are deaf. Alex and Anna claim to be educating their children at home, although Lili and Dori are spending their days roaming free or sitting in the tree outside their building. When they live in the city, the other children in the neighborhood make fun of them, forcing Lili and Dori to depend on each other. They speak (sign) what they call “the language” with their parents, who don’t seem that interested in them. When the authorities come to call, the family manages to pass the inspection, but they soon move to the country, where Alex becomes a type of guru to lost souls. However, the authorities once again visit and this time the lives of both girls radically change.

It’s difficult to talk about the most interesting parts of “Aquarium” without giving away too much of the plot. However, its focus on the difference between Deaf culture (although the novel never specifically notes that) and a world that seeks to correct deafness shows a divide with clear lines. However, Alex and Anna are hiding secrets from their daughters, ones that will make a difference later in their lives.

Shehori’s writing style is disjointed, making it difficult to understand what is actually happening to Lili and Dori. This does make sense because readers see the world through the sisters’ eyes and they don’t always clearly understand what is happening to them. This may tempt some to stop reading, but the novel’s powerful ending makes it worth finishing. 

Both “What Sammy Knew” and “Aquarium” would be good choices for book clubs because they offer a great deal to discuss. Laskin offers a slightly different picture of the early 1970s, one that lets readers discuss not only civil rights and student violence, but the assumptions whites made about the Blacks who worked for them. Readers may debate the fact that a white, Jewish author can offer insights into Leon’s mind, but he also shows how Sammy can’t imagine a world to which he’s never been introduced. While Kim may take a dangerous route, Laskin displays understanding about why it was easy for her to fall onto that path.

My reactions to “Aquarium” are biased since they are affected by my own hearing impairment. While I understand and sympathize with the Deaf community for not wanting to use devices and hold fast to sign language, as someone who is so grateful to have better hearing with my cochlear implant, it’s difficult to not feel strongly about what the Ackerman parents did to their daughters. Again, I don’t want to reveal more of the plot, but the knowledge learned at the end of the novel greatly influenced my feelings and made this a work that deserves discussion.