Off the Shelf: Life in the Catskills by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Jewish life in the Catskill Mountains during the 20th century took a variety of forms. Some people lived in the villages all year-round, while others came only for the summer. Some visitors spent their vacations in fancy hotels that catered to their every whim, while others owned small vacation homes and cottages. The former visitors came as a family to escape the heat of the city for a few days or weeks. The latter stayed for the summer, with the women and children remaining in the country all week, while the men visited for the weekend and then returned to the city for the workweek. Two recent works of fiction offer views of these two different lifestyles: “The Hotel Neversink” by Adam O’Fallon Price (Tin House Books) focuses on the rise and fall of a family hotel, while Andrea Simon’s “Floating in the Neversink: A Novel in Stories” (Black Rose Writing) explores family relationships during vacations at the summer home of the narrator’s grandmother.
The 60-plus year history (from 1950-2012) of “The Hotel Neversink” is told from the points of view of almost 15 characters. These narratives range from first person to third person, and each offers a view of the hotel during different time periods. Four generations of Sikorskys made the hotel the center of their lives – from Asher Levem Sikorsky, who came from Europe after his family nearly starved, to his great-granddaughter Suzannah, who returns to the village to help her father close the hotel’s doors. 
In addition to the family problems – sibling rivalries and parent-children disagreements – that plague the Sikorskys, a central mystery informs the plot: one day, a child disappeared from the hotel without a trace. Searches turn up no body, but people believe the child died, and some assume the hotel is haunted. More children in nearby villages also disappear. Finally, one child is abducted, but manages to survive. No one, however, has a clue to who is the culprit, and the one person who has a theory is ignored. The novelist also explores the tribulations of Len Sikorsky, the grandson of the original owner, who feels obligated to restore the hotel to its former glory, even though everyone else knows that will never happen. 
The two plot lines – that of a family hotel and the abduction of children – come together at the end of the novel in a surprising way. The author manages to show the Sikorskys’ love of their home, even as it decays, and makes Len’s attempts to save the hotel convincing. Unfortunately, learning what happened in the past can change thoughts of the future, as the characters find out – some to their joy and others to their dismay.
While “The Hotel Neversink” features many narrative voices, “Floating in the Neversink” has one narrator: Amanda Gerber, who speaks about her life in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. When 9-years-old, she worries that someone will steal her best friend, Francine, when her family leaves Brooklyn for the country during the summer. At the same time, she’s very excited to see her cousin, Laura, whose family also stays with their grandmother. Family life is not easy: Amanda’s father is rude and obnoxious, and her teenage sister can be mean. The two families sharing the house don’t always get along; rifts appear between her parents and her aunt and uncle. There is also sexual abuse that goes unspoken since Amanda fears either no one will believe her or they’ll think it’s her fault.
Amanda is a sweet, appealing character. Her devotion to her friends shines out, even when they no longer return her affection. It’s sad to see how her father treats the women in the family, as if they have no brains or sense. Amanda longs for his interest, but he never sees his daughter as a person. Readers discover more about him by reading between the lines, especially when Amanda and Laura uncover a family secret.
“Floating in the Neversink” is definitely a novel in stories since the stories don’t flow into each other as naturally as chapters in the novel do, and some material is repeated. But that doesn’t affect the pleasure of reading them. 
Of additional interest is the fact that both books featured the name Neversink in their titles, a river whose name was unfamiliar to me. According to Wikepedia, “the Neversink River is a 55-mile-long tributary of the Delaware River in southeastern New York in the United States. The name of the river comes from the corruption of an Algonquian language phrase meaning ‘mad river.’” These novels offer a portrait of a Jewish past that has disappeared. Together these two works recapture part of that past – its innocence and its betrayals.