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Mon September 27, 2004
Chicken Dreaming Corn
There have been many pieces of the southern cultural puzzle missing, and now Roy Hoffman is adding his piece of that puzzle. there have been many pieces of the southern cultural puzzle missing, and now Roy Hoffman is adding his piece of that puzzle.
By Don Noble
Southern fiction has undergone a steady metamorphosis, a steady evolution since its beginnings, when it was mainly the novel of the plantation. These novels of the lives of the white planters at first were southern fiction, reaching its apotheosis, of course, with Gone with the Wind.
Since then, southern fiction has expanded widely. Faulkner added the poor white Snopeses, and included black families as well. Black novelists such as Richard Wright, then Ernest Gaines, to name just a couple, tell those stories from inside the black community. Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren write of the hill and mountain people.
But all along, there have been many pieces of the southern cultural puzzle missing, and now Roy Hoffman is adding his piece of that puzzle. Hoffman is a third-generation Mobilian whose Jewish grandfather immigrated from Romania.
In Chicken Dreaming Corn, Hoffman has fictionalized the Southern immigrant story. To escape the pogroms and prejudices of Romania, Morris Kleinman comes to America, first to New York City. Then he comes to Mobile and sets up a small clothing store which will never make him rich, but which will, with careful management, ?put food on the table.?
The title, Chicken Dreaming Corn, means that each of us dreams of the thing we desire most, but can rarely get. Alabama is, not surprisingly, not a paradise, but it is a lot better than Moldavia. There is a KKK but even these monsters can?t compare to the Iron Guard.
The Romanian army was fond of snatching Jewish boys for fifteen years of involuntary hard labor. Morris flees that and the other dangers and indignities of the Carpathians for a life with opportunity. He marries, has a family with all the joys and heartbreaks that entails, including the death of one daughter from rheumatic fever, and survives to a reasonable old age.
The novel opens in 1916 on Confederate Memorial Day and closes in 1945. Along the way, one son leaves and then rejoins the business, and another son, Herman, attends the University of Alabama and ultimately becomes an attorney. Roy Hoffman?s father, now in his nineties, on whom Herman is based, may be the oldest practising lawyer in Alabama.
Morris is a scrupulously honest businessman, but one of my favorite sections of the book is the discovery, in the 1930?s, of time payment plans for furniture, that is to say, Kleinman?s friendly credit. In order to stay in business, and for anyone to be able to afford anything new, Morris sells on credit and then has to learn the new skills of repossessing and selling the same bed or chest of drawers, refurbished, again.
In the course of the action, there are adventures with prostitutes, an encounter with miscegenation, and the need to resist evangelizing by, I guess, well-meaning fundamentalists. The Kleinman family struggles to become southerners and fit in, while actually keeping kosher, remaining Jewish, and behaving honorably when there is a temptation to assimilate in the most negative ways. They especially resist taking on racial prejudice: ?In my home,? Herman writes, ?we live in our own special corner of the South.?
There are many souths with their corners. Hoffman has told his story, but I have always felt that in Alabama there were thousands of books, on new topics, yet to be written. We will one day have the novel of the Mexican immigrants in Etowah County and the Vietnamese in Bayou le Batre. We will have a political novel of the caliber of All the King?s Men, fictionalizing the Wallace or Patterson years.
We will have the novel of the convict labor in the mines and of the Greek community in Birmingham and the Yugoslavs in the steel mills. We will continue to have the novels of the civil rights movement and race relations, but we could stand a novel about the music business in Muscle Shoals or a NASA-based novel that takes place inside the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
Meanwhile, Roy Hoffman has done a fine job of telling his Alabama story. Mazel tov.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.