Segal, Lore. Her First American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Reason read: my college celebrated “Immigrant Awareness Week” in February.
Ilka Weissnix is a twenty one year old immigrant from Vienna. Arriving in New York City for the very first time, she is hungry to learn everything she can about America. Her cousin, Litvak, arranges for her to travel cross country by train to the wild, wild west. It’s in Nevada where Ilka meets her “first American”, Carter Bayoux. This is the 1950s so meeting Carter is blessing and a curse. Being an intellectual he is eager to show Ilka the world of artists and scholars. Being a heavy drinker and a reckless romantic he also exposes her to jokes that aren’t always funny and a world that sometimes is unfair and unpredictable. Needless to say she is confused a lot of the time. But, it’s his drinking that really hit home for me. I live on the fringe of other people’s addiction and Segal does an amazing job bringing that harsh reality into the spotlight with subtle grace. Carter’s bouts of loneliness and helplessness are amplified through his constant summoning of Ilka to his hotel room as if there is a dire emergency. His brother’s inability to be around him is an indication of the shame Carter has brought to his family. And yet, Carter is surrounded by friends who obviously adore him.
I found this to be a fascinating read. At times I caught myself pondering American slang and thinking how strange it must sound in the ears of a foreigner.
As an aside, I have no idea why Lore wanted Ilka to travel all the way to Nevada to meet Carter. They both live in New York City so wouldn’t it have been easier to have them bump into each other there? The trip out west is just an odd blip in an otherwise mostly New York-centric story.
Most profound quote, “Like the series of points that make a line, the moments in which Carter did not pick up the glass made half a minute, a minute, five minutes, half an hour – became the morning Carter Bayoux stopped drinking” (p 82).
More quotes, “She was moved by the delicacy of his enormous sleep” (p 106) and “The prospect of sending her voice out among so many strangers made her heart beat and strangled her breath” (p 171).
Author fact: Segal was born in Vienna. Could Her First American be somewhat autobiographical in nature? Does she have a “first” American?
Book trivia: The cover of Her First American is from a painting called “City Activities with Subway” by Thomas Hart Benton (1930). Even though the story takes place twenty years later, the scene still works.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter simply called “The Immigrant Experience” (p 124).