October 3: “Madagascar” by Steven Schwartz

Hey hey, Story366! Today was another beautiful all day in Springfield, great for teaching classes, grading papers, and also attending our annual department ice cream social. The ice cream social is an event set up by the Department of English to give out information about our various programs, luring them in with the promise of free ice cream sundaes. It got me over there, anyway, and hopefully, it worked on some actual undecided students as well.

This evening, I attended a Miracle League baseball game with my son’s Cub Scout den. That was as an inspiring and heart-warming an event as I’ve ever been to. We sat in the bleachers with the parents as the kids all took their turns at bat—two innings worth, two at-bats each kid. My oldest son, who doesn’t watch sports, was transfixed by what was going on, and when we talked about it on the way home, he seemed to really understand not only what had happened on the field, but also why we all went to watch. Overall, a good night for the soul, a way to pay the world back for free ice cream sundaes.

When I got home, I read several stories from Steven Schwartz’s new collection, Madagascar: New & Selected Stories, out from Engine Books. Schwartz is the author of three previous collections and a couple of novels, but certainly, having a new and selected out is a great honor for any writer’s career. I enjoyed the stories in Madagascar and of the stories I read, the title is sticking with me the most (even though I read it first), so I’ve chosen it for today’s post.

“Madagascar” is about a guy named Ephram, who’s telling a story about his father, his own upbringing, how he became a man, the man telling this story from some distant future point, looking back. Ephram begins his tale by sharing a story he knows well (implying he’s heard it many times), the story of how his father escaped the Nazis, survived the Holocaust. Ephram’s father, a young Jewish man in Holland, was hiding out with his own family, sent out to forage for food as he was the blond, blue-eyed family member, the member least likely to be recognized as a Jew. Things go wrong while out on a run and Ephram’s father is forced to hide in the bakery with the sympathetic baker; while at the bakery, his family is discovered and shuffled off, never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, Ephram’s father, has to hide out in the bakery’s spare oven, sometimes for a couple of hours, but if the bakery’s busy, for much longer. At the end of the war, Ephram’s father moves to America, becomes a history professor, has Ephram, lives his life.

Older narrator Ephram then starts guiding us through his own life, his childhood, stopping on key incidents that help form him, plus the relationship between he and his father. There’s an incident when he’s caught shoplifting and his father, patient and calm, explains to him the nature of life, the big picture, never referring to the shoplifting. Another scene/memory: Ephram, years later, wants to drop out of college and his father tries to talk him out of it. There’s also scene when Ephram gets drafted to go to Vietnam and he and his father discuss his options. Ephram eventually grows up to manhood and visits the town in Holland where his father was raised, visits the bakery, actually climbs in the oven that his father spent months inside of to avoid being captured. Ephram wants to bring his father back to this village one day, but his father comes up with excuse after excuse as to why he can’t. The story goes on like this as long as this wiser retrospect can go with it, completing the life of not only Ephram’s father, but Ephram’s father as father to Ephram. It’s a moving and unpredictable story, one that, thematically, delivers on its father-son quotient, a tribute from one man to the man he admires the most.

Fact I found out in the story: The title “Madagascar” comes from an early answer Hitler devised to the “Jewish problem,” shipping all Jews to Madagascar to live out their days, to go to this island and disappear. Ephram relects on this in the story. It’s fascinating to imagine.

Steven Schwartz has created a narrative here in which a boy becomes a man, learning   new lesson in every scene, building himself into bigger man. I liked “Madagascar” and all the stories I read in Madagascar. Schwartz has a way of really getting into his characters, his stories in-depth analyses of real-sounding people, real because Schwartz expertly draws them this way. I feel really lucky to have read from this book today. What a great culmination of this talented author’s work … so far.

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