At some point, every American family has been either immigrant, settler or refugee, and in Allison Amend’s debut novel these “misfits and can’t-get-alongs” combust in the Indian Territory that becomes the state of Oklahoma.
Set between the California gold rush and the Oklahoma oil boom, between the promise of the railways and the advent of the automobile, “Stations West” spans four generations of a family of mixed breeds—Jewish, Indian, Swedish, Irish, German—seeking to sever their wandering and settle a home. At heart is the story of a wounded father, Moshe, and his mother-lost son, Garfield, who separately experience the country as railmen, then build the town of Owenasa. The railway isn’t just a symbol of the American experience, even as it puts Owenasa on the map; it is the only thing shared by the passive romantic Moshe and the bitter tyrant Garfield. The story of these men would be nothing without the women they pine for and alienate, and the few friends they make in the business of life.
There are well over two dozen characters in “Stations West,” so children die, parents vanish and life’s small daily pleasures are hardly offset by the expected suffering of living, yet it is an enjoyable read. “Stations West” is epic in its handling of time, chronological yet with decades covered in a paragraph like so many Latino writers (Lincoln Park-native Amend is fluent in Catalan). But that quintessential American novel, “Grapes of Wrath” (which gets a “Battle Hymn of the Republic” shout-out late in the book), is evoked in the intimacy of the characters’ daily struggles to survive on the pioneering edge. Amend’s grasp of details and knowledge of unusual work processes was impressive in her witty and moving 2009 collection of stories, “Things That Pass for Love,” but her dual talents as storyteller and social historian are on full display in “Stations West.” Like the rail lines it celebrates, “Stations West” takes some time to build momentum, then instead of a singular driving suspense, it winds through time and place before stopping at certain narrative stations and settling in with that overlooked band of misfits in Oklahoma. (Robert Duffer)
By Allison Amend
Louisiana State University Press, 248 pages, $18.95