“The Unveiling,” by Leah Rae Lambert, is a deceptively interesting novel.
For the first 50 pages or so, the reader gets the impression that the most interesting aspect of this book is its references to local places. Lambert, formerly of Pittsburgh, incorporates
actual streets, stores, institutions and neighborhoods from Pittsburgh into her story of an extended family sitting shiva for their estranged, deeply disturbed father and grandfather, Morton Burin.
The characters go to dances at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, they shop in the Strip District and set up a business in nearby Vandergrift. Lambert even mentions The Chronicle, as the paper where Burin’s funeral announcement appears.
The book initially feels like another locally set novel, Thomas Bell’s “Out of This Furnace,” which tells the story of an immigrant family’s life in Braddock and was a popular read for many Mon Valley Jews.
But “The Unveiling” is more than a trip down memory lane. While we see the family gathering around their mother and grandmother — Ettie Burin — to recount the family story as the shiva draws on, we gain a sobering understanding of the personal lives of newcomers to America, and how the immigrant experience took its toll.
We learn how Ettie’s father, Yitzhac, after being attacked by bandits near his home village of Skvira, Ukraine, prior to World War I, leaves for America planning to work, save and send for his wife, Sarah, and their three children.
Eight years pass before their reunion. During that time, Sarah and the kids survive the Russian Revolution, the civil war that followed and numerous pogroms.
When reunited in America, Sarah and Yitzhac are not the same people. They are disappointed with one another, their relationship forever altered by the long separation.
The story picks up with Ettie’s marriage to Morton, an unreliable born loser who can be violent at times. Ettie stays with him only because she fears the humiliation of divorce.
Morton frequently disappears for days, even weeks at a time. Finally we learn he has a mental illness, is hospitalized, and will never be well. The family goes on public assistance. All of this happens with World War II as the backdrop, and news of the Holocaust slowly coming out.
To be sure, “The Unveiling” is not a happy story, but it’s a hopeful story. Ettie’s kids are successful, well adjusted and reasonably happy. Most importantly, they use the shiva to come to terms with their family history. They don’t run from their story, they embrace it, constantly urging Ettie to tell all she remembers about her difficult life.
One gets the feeling they’re learning from her, symbolically standing on her shoulders to reach for something better. And isn’t that what the immigrant experience is all about?
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)