Author Q&A: Bernard Beck- One American Dream
One American Dream is a timely historical novel that addresses an important question of what it means to be an American. Bernard Beck has written his debut fiction novel following a Jewish family who moved from the old world to start a new life in the "land of opportunity". This intelligent and thoughtful story follows 3 generations as they struggle to establish their cultural identity and look for ways to contribute to the society they live in while honoring the society and culture of their heritage.
We had the opportunity to speak with Beck about how his own family was the basis for One American Dream and discussed the historical and philosophical depth that his novel provides.
AJ: Can you tell us about how your own family history inspired One American Dream?
BB: I had started to write a book about my mother. She was a rebellious woman back when rebellious women were not tolerated. Her name was Bertha, but everyone called her Birdie. She was forced to marry my father because she wanted to go to college, and her parents believed that proper girls from her middle class Jewish milieu “just didn't go to college.” She finally went to college much later in life and graduated a year ahead of my wife. She wore men's pants and no bra. She smoked cigarettes, was a defiant loner, and challenged everything. My friends related more to her more as a contemporary than as a parent, and she was very proud of this. She wrote short stories and also was a contributing editor for a few diverse monthly publications both in this country and in South Africa. My parents were married in 1927 at the height of the “roaring 20's”, and lived the “high life.” By the mid-'30's they were destitute, but they persevered and rebuilt their life together. The character Ruthie is based on my mother and was the starting point for my book, but I found that as I wrote about my mother and her idiosyncrasies, I had to give her some sort of background that would explain her behavior. My grandparents were quite old and retired by the time I was born, but my mother had told me that her mother had, indeed, been a very successful milliner and that my grandfather had invested in Brooklyn real estate. So, I based my characters on them. The Zayde (my mother's grandfather) had died before I was born – I am named for him. I know nothing at all about him although I do have a photo of him. All of the stories about Jack and his family are fictional creations, but, I believe, the characters are true. In fact, none of the events that I depict in the book actually happened, but I think they could have.
AJ: We love the central question that your book addresses, what makes an American? What does it mean to you to be an American?
BB: I believe Americans are strivers – always striving to improve their situation for themselves and their families. That's why they came here in the first place – to improve their lives; and that striving has been passed on to their children – that's why I called the book One American Dream. Jack recognizes that America is the land of opportunity while he is on the ship coming up the Hudson River, and he determines to be an authentic American from that moment on. But being an authentic American is an elusive goal – the more you are, the more you want to be. Until that one moment of revelation – the moment when you realize that part of striving is giving others the opportunity to strive. The key is opportunity. We Americans must make every effort to enable the strivers among us to succeed; and to encourage the disappointed and disenchanted to strive. That's what Jack learned – that he had become an authentic American when he enabled, and encouraged others to strive.
AJ: What do you hope your readers will take away from this book in regards to that question?
BB: Hope and faith in the future as typified by the “Rosie the Riveter” poster from World War II. It is a “can do” attitude that is uniquely American. Sure, it isn't easy, and sure there will be plenty of pitfalls and setbacks, but just like all of the “American” characters in the book, you've got to believe that the future is there to be conquered. There are many routes to this victory – some are intellectual, like Ruthie's, some are creative, like Rose's, some are physical, like Aaron's, and some are aspirational, like Jack's. And there are others. Only the grandfather, who carried the burden of “Old World” values, saw no hope in the future. The takeaway should be optimism and self-confidence because there are many routes to success, and success has many faces.
AJ: You are very talented at getting into the mind of each of your characters and sharing their thoughts. Which character was your favorite to get to know?
BB: Surprisingly, the character I liked the best was the judge in the very beginning who recognized Jack's potential and risked his career to give Jack, and other young people like him, a push in the right direction. I couldn't figure out a motivation for Jack – how he makes the transition from street tough to aspiring entrepreneur – until the judge showed up. This remarkable man must have pushed dozens of potential delinquents in the right direction, and what he did was truly heroic, and the epitome of self-sacrifice. Maimonides, the brilliant twelfth-century Jewish philosopher wrote of a ladder of charity in which the highest rung is to give a person an opportunity to better himself. That is what the judge did.
AJ: What do you find to be the most interesting aspect of the early 1900’s historical setting of One American Dream?
BB: The time between the wars was possibly the most chaotic period in American history since the Civil War. Prior to WWI the United States had been a second-rate power, still dependent on Europe for culture and commerce. But WWI destroyed Europe and only the United States survived. We became the most powerful and dominant country in the world. It was a time of rebirth, and exploding creativity and energy. A century of Victorian and Edwardian mannerisms was swept away in a matter of months, and replaced by a fatalistic world of wild abandon. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway replaced Henry James and Edith Wharton. And then everything collapsed. And then we had another World War.