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Jewish Journal

A ‘Victory Garden’ grows (in Brooklyn) from writer’s fertile mind

by Robert David Jaffee

October 25, 2007 | 8:00 pm

"The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn" by Merrill Joan Gerber (Syracuse Univ. Press, 406 pages, $24.95)
In the living room of novelist Merrill Joan Gerber's home in Sierra Madre is a harpsichord that is most often played by her husband, a retired Pasadena City College history professor.

The presence of this musical instrument is fitting, because music plays a major role in Gerber's latest book, "The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn." At one point in "Victory Gardens," Gerber's 27th book, the central character, Musetta, a pianist and stand-in for Gerber's own mother, ponders the magic of music. It "made her feel she was flying outside over the treetops, over the river, away past Brooklyn, past the cemeteries and the houses and the endless stores of dead chickens and glassy-eyed fish."

When it is pointed out to Gerber that she uses a lot of flight imagery, she says she wasn't aware of doing so. Yet, just as flight suggests a kind of freedom for Toni Morrison's milkman in "Song of Solomon," it leads to liberation, imagination and open-ended possibility for several of Gerber's characters, including Musetta, as well as Richard, a World War II flier, based on Gerber's cousin, and Issa, a little girl modeled after Gerber herself.

In one of "Victory Gardens'" most daring scenes, Gerber writes a beautiful passage from the point of view of Issa, a toddler, as she watches her father soar up and down the fabled parachute jump at Coney Island: "He was gone, just a dot of nothing, not even her father anymore, just a speck of black, then a colorless invisible vein of white on blue."

Issa is no ordinary child. She is a prodigy. At one point, she is even described as "a savior," one of multiple Christian images in the book. Many of the young men in the book are depicted as Christlike figures, and, not surprisingly, two of them die, though because their bodies are never found, there is the hope that they could return.

Gerber's work has typically been infused with the American Jewish narrative of the past century -- "Victory Gardens" focuses on the years from 1906 to 1945 -- so Gerber is surprised when it is suggested that she has used Christian tropes like the cross and the notion of a messiah.

A previous book, "The Kingdom of Brooklyn," winner of the Ribalow Prize awarded by Hadassah Magazine for the best work of a Jewish theme, portrayed many of the same characters who appear in "Victory Gardens," including Issa, and takes place in the years immediately after World War II. Gerber's characters are primarily members of a Jewish family, not unlike her own, which began life in America on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before migrating to Brooklyn, Miami and ultimately Southern California, where Gerber has lived for some 40 years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gerber began selling short stories to magazines, including The New Yorker, which accepted her first story after she completed her Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and Redbook, to which she sold 42 stories -- a record, she says.

"I didn't even think of myself as a Jewish writer in those years," she says. "If I ever used a Jewish phrase or Jewish name, Redbook would have me change it."

However, she remembered the lesson taught by Philip Roth in "Goodbye Columbus" -- that it was OK for a writer to populate her novels and stories with Jewish characters and to mine her own family history, rather than to try to write, for instance, like William Wordsworth or Virginia Woolf, who had lived lives very different from her own.

Gerber is certainly a writer who adheres to the dictum of writing what you know. In her living room, she unearths a bunch of circa-1900 letters from one of her late aunts. She points to her journals stacked on shelves on the wall. She then brings over a few photo albums, revealing pictures of herself as a little girl.

One of those pictures appears on the cover of "Victory Gardens," which takes its name from the gardens in which many Americans planted vegetables like peas and tomatoes during World War II.

The book provides a poignant and sweeping look at an era when Americans bonded as they haven't since, when those who remained at home saved tin foil and bacon grease for the war effort, bought war bonds, volunteered for the Red Cross or worked at defense factories.

That is not to say that people back then did not struggle. The characters in "Victory Garden" suffer almost daily hospitalizations, injuries and traumas of some variety. Yet they persist in the face of this adversity.

Although her alter ego Issa seems to live a charmed life as a toddler, Gerber says that she herself has endured many blows.

"Being a writer is being rejected; that's the essence of it," says the author, who for nearly 20 years has also taught fiction writing at Cal Tech.

She recently received a painful review from an unsigned Publishers Weekly critic, who referred to her book as a "boilerplate novel."

"At this point, why put my head on the chopping block?" she says. "Why let young people decide my fate?"

Still, she has never forgotten what Andrew Lytle, her teacher at the University of Florida, once said. "You have the gift."

Unintentionally invoking the possibility of flight again, she says, "You can fly with that for the rest of your life."

Merrill Joan Gerber will appear Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2:30 p.m. at the Huntington Library in the Overseers Room and Thursday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m. at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

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