Quiet Americans
 by Erika Dreifus

Last Light Studio
First Collection

"You will go to Germany. You will go, after years and years of refusing to go (even when you traveled through the rest of Europe after your freshman year of college), just as you refused to learn German until circumstances (that is to say, graduate school requirements) forced you to. But if your grandparents, may they rest in peace, managed to go back and visit, way back in 1972, then you can go. "

Reviewed by Sarah Salway

The stories in this book have so much heart, that it is not surprising to read that the author was inspired by the history of her grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the US in the late 1930s. But any concern I might have had that the facts would unbalance the fiction were unfounded. Even when the author seems to be intruding, such as the bracketed asides to the reader in Matrilineal Descent, "(yes it was true)" or "(I can anticipate your comment, dear reader)", I found myself wrongfooted, as the story then went on in Dreifus’s effectively unemotional style to tell a story that left me breathless. The theme of this story – as others in the book – is that nowhere, and nobody, is safe. Just as in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a novel it’s hard not to think the title story is named after, even ordinary people doing their best to survive can’t expect to find comfort near to home. History has left these characters feeling nostalgic for the simplicityof the idea of truth.

However, even in the middle of this danger, there is warmth and optimism as symbolised in this affectionate comment from wife to husband:
"You and your castrophes," his wife said, starting the climb up the museum’s steps. "Go, have a good time."
In one of my favourite stories, Floating, changing times – another recuurent theme – is shown through the way a mother compares her own pregnancy with her daughter’s. Her own was:
Pure delight. Absolute and unadulterated happiness. Her husband’s parents had fled Hitler in the 1930s. Jerry was their only son. This baby – and its future sibling – would be the center of their lives.
However, although – on the surface – her much more affluent and comfortable daughter should be having an easier time, this isn’t the case:
Were they just ignorant back then? Was it so wrong to assume that without thalidomide or DES in your history you didn’t need to worry? "Didn’t you even consider Tay-Sachs?" Allison had asked, and Mia had to confess that no, she hadn’t.
Floating is a story that forces you to look at how much we take for granted now, and what is really important. Ringing through this story are the words Mia’s father in law greeted her first-born, ‘L’chaim", to life. This toast, coming where it does in the story, helps to reinforce just how important family love is.

It is the complexity of even the simplest situations that seems to fascinate Dreifus. This is particularly so in the story, For Services Rendered, which tells the story of a Jewish doctor who forms a friendship with the wife of the Reichsmarshall when he is called in to treat her. This relationship allows him to relocate safely his family to America, but the real story takes place years later during the Nuremburg trials and the Doctor secretly writes in to support the Reichsmarshall’s wife. Her letter thanking him for this brings mixed emotions, and the whole story reveals itself as a series of situations in which there can never be one simple right way to behave.

Dreifus is a sophisticated writer. Each story feels as if she has searched for the right way to tell it – second person narrator, directives to the reader, an almost filmic change of focus – but it’s not tricksy, because it’s obvious that Dreifus has listened for, and respects, the truth of the story.

Read a story from this collection on Scribblers on the Roof

Sarah Salway is a poet, short story writer and author of three novels (including Something Beginning With). She teaches creative writing in the community, and is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the LSE.

Sarahs's other Short Reviews: Lorrie Moore "Self Help"   

Karen Russell "St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"

Niki Aguirre "29 Ways to Drown"

Michael Martone "Michael Martone"

Tracy Winn "Mrs Somebody Somebody"
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Erika Dreifus lives and writes in New York City. Erika is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review and an advisory board member for J Journal: New Writing on Justice. Erika’s writing practice encompasses fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

Read an interview with Erika Dreifus