Sunday, June 26, 2016
Following the dynamic and memorable Swift River, R.C. Binstock once again demonstrates his gift for capturing little-known and little-explored episodes from America’s past: in Native Child he considers the Orphan Trains, a scheme by reform-minded East Coasters to move purported orphans and street urchins to a “more wholesome” life with families in the Midwest. Along the way he manages an unforgettable and unique family saga, filling it with eloquence, and a deep understanding of human impulse and folly. Native Child is touching, impressive, vivid, and full of soul.
An infant, named Oscar by hospital workers, is found in a grocery in New York, becomes a ward of the state until, aged eight years, he runs away from the latest orphanage and falls in with a street gang. Later that year, 1922, he voluntarily gets on a train with dozens of other children and alights in Nebraska. From there, Mr. Binstock unfolds the multi-generational story, with its loves and pitfalls, its challenges and misunderstandings - those things which make family family.
But there are several unique features to Native Child that separate it from so many other family sagas. Oscar, warily trying to find his life in this alien land, finds speech too challenging and too perilous, and so stops speaking.
But the soul of Native Child, the compelling reason to take it up and delight in it: it boasts an eloquence not often found in today’s resolutely workmanlike fictions. As timeless truths occur to the life-weary and regretful characters, you get passages like this:
“The meter of life: not time as we guess, as we mostly suppose, yes time passes and it passes, untiringly, profoundly, but only because you are. The difference in you: between inhale and exhale, between heartbeat and beat, between what you drink at eight and what you expel at ten, the same moisture in and out, passing through you, its atoms unchanged but you are changed and that’s how you know time has passed. How you perceive you are alive, must be alive, must accept the rhythm’s rule.”
Those are Oscar’s words from late in his life, and from Lillian, his beloved adoptive guardian:
“… I was startled to recall how we’d all acted as if Oscar’s silence, his refusal to speak, was something provocative, bizarre. We all refuse words, all the time! We do it selectively, is all, under the pretense of being willing when need arises but that’s a lie. We keep to ourselves what we keep to ourselves without review, [and] without approval … Silence is golden or it isn’t, but it’s widespread.”