Book a Week: The Best American Short Stories of the Century

This week I’d like to talk about one story in a daunting book I’m in the process of working through, The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison. I intend to read all 795 pages of stories and biographical notes, which obviously will take quite a long time. Today I’m up to page 158.

The story I read this morning was called “My Dead Brother Comes to America,” a fascinating title. It was originally published in The Windsor Quarterly in 1934, and was written by Alexander Godin. The piece tells the tale of a mother and her three children arriving in New York on a steamship, en route to reunite with their husband/father who had left the Ukraine for America eight years earlier. Through the eyes of the thirteen-year-old narrator, I was able to clearly see the emigrants aboard the ship, the nastiness of their accomodations, the indifference of the officials who examined them upon their arrival at Ellis Island. I was able to feel the despair that had brought them across the ocean, the emptiness of a young boy lost in a strange place and in a family that had been “broken into many shards.”

This is a truer tale than I have read in any history book.

What we know of Alexander Godin is that he was born in the Ukraine in 1909 and arrived in New York in 1922. We know he worked as a bottler in a chemical plant and that he wrote a novel called On the Threshold. We know nothing more, not even the year of his death (assuming he has passed), according to the biographical notes. Another source I found via Google claims “Alexander Godin” was a psyeudonym of a writer named Joseph Katz. In any case, we seem to have lost track of Godin himself though his story has survived for 78 years to be read by me, and will likely survive for many years to come due to its inclusion in this volume.

I wonder what Alexander Godin would think of this. I wonder if, when he set his story down on paper, he considered how he could relate the tale in a way that would be universal, that would carry meaning for a wide audience, that would ensure its longevity. I wonder if he considered how to turn the story of this one boy’s family turmoil into a social commentary about the larger issue of mass emigration to America. I wonder if he worried about whether his effort would be deemed true literature.

Or, did he simply aim to tell his story in the best way he could. I wonder…