Chains Around the Grass, by Naomi Ragen, is a novel that is about family dynamics, expectations, resilience and so much more.
The book opens in Queens, New York, and it is 1955. From that point forward, the underlying context of the story line goes downhill. It is a depressing read, within the less than desirable confines of the low-income housing projects.
David Markowitz is a Jew who has done what so many other Jews have done in the past, given up his Jewish identity and assimilated into the folds of America. He changed his son’s surname to Marks. He has high hopes of making it big in a world filled with schemers and dreamers.
Capitalistic mores and values are strong within the pages. They overtake the social aspects of identity and culture, creating realities that family members don’t want to face. The “American Dream” turns into a constant nightmare for the Markowitz family.
David’s wife Ruth and their three children become the victims of poverty. In David’s mind the children become the scapegoats of dreams that have turned to nightmares. And his children are victimized as their innocence is broken at too young an age.
David’s wife passively allows him to be the decisive one in the family, making all of the decisions, even though she doesn’t always agree with them. As hard as he tries to move his family out of poverty and out of the less than desirable living conditions they find themselves in, he fails. He tries to sound optimistic and speaks in a positive tone, often too loudly, hoping against hope that they will be happy in their environment.
David feels that with each move they have managed to somehow move up in status, when in actuality they have been bumped down several notches. This reflects in the attitudes of his children, and how they adjust to, and accept, their new surroundings. They see the truth behind the superficial attempts David makes at overplaying the situations he has put them in. Eventually David begins to see the reality, but it comes at a time when it is too late.
The “chains” are metaphorical for not only the reality of their oppressive existence, but also for the emotional levels that keep each of them bound in a regressed state, unable to move forward.
One area of the novel that is filled with clarity is David’s daughter, Sara’s eagerness to accept and find fulfillment in education and Judaism. She finds a sense of comfort within the Jewish day school, whereas her brother, Jesse is the opposite. He forsakes education and religion, and in the end is filled with self-hate, which shows in his destructive behavior and interactions. Sara begins to value herself, and her self-esteem is slowly enhanced by her religious and educational pursuits.
Ragen is adept at reflecting the individual mindsets within the family interactions, the situations and the devastating events. What I found a bit lacking in Chains Around the Grass was the fact that the characters didn’t seem to have much substance to them. But, of course, that all ties in with the extreme euphoria that David often projected, and superficial aspect behind the enhanced exterior presented to others. It also makes sense in the scheme of things with Ruth and her passiveness, due to his overbearing behavior which masks his underlying insecurities.
Ragen writes with her usual flair, enhancing the theme of Jewish illuminations within an environment of despair. She tries to weave a sense of hope within the prose, and sometimes it works, and at other times it doesn’t within the chapters of Chains Around the Grass. It is not a happy read, but a sad one, and I feel that the inspiration that Ragen might have wanted the reader to come away with left this reader without hopeful glimmers during many of the passages within the pages. Of course, this could be intentional on her part, due to the themes of the demeaning and debilitating circumstances of lives that are filled with adversity and poverty, lives that often do not have hope. She more than likely wanted to underscore the severity of their lives.
Naomi Ragen is brilliant at writing and creating stories of despair. Within the slow-moving pages I began to recognize the slow-paced emotional and logical development of Sara, and even her mother, Ruth. Many may not like Chains Around the Grass, due to its slowness and/or often depressive content. If you stay with the book, there will be illumination, although it is often slight, nonetheless, it is illumination that radiates hope.