Guest Column

Heard around Heritage: What Novels Influenced Your Life?

Harriet Leib
Raina Lefkowitz

A good book—fiction or non-fiction—can make a lasting impression. Maybe it’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” about World War I, the page-turner “Marjorie Morningstar,” or something recent, like “The Boys in the Boat” about the 1936 Olympic rowing team. Is there a book or character in a book that has influenced your life? Two residents from Heritage Hills answer the question.

Harriet Leib

I was about 12 years old when I discovered and read the book, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” written by Betty Smith. Reading was and is one of my favorite pastimes, and although I read a lot, coming upon this book was a found and fulfilling treasure. It is rare to pick out a book and find that what you are reading is very familiar. But, that is what happened to me.

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There were lots of similarities between Francie, a young girl of 12, and her family, which consisted of a mother, father and younger brother, and my family, which had the exact grouping of parents and younger sibling. My parents were immigrants who came to the United States; my mother was 15 and my father was 16 when they were welcomed to our country. Francie’s parents were from Ireland and were Catholic. My parents were Jewish and one had lived in Poland and the other grew up in Austria. Both families wanted the most and best for their children, and although my father did not have a drinking problem like Francie’s dad, they both worked hard and loved their wives and kids. Both mothers worked to help with the family expenses. Francie worked even when she was in school and so did I. I was a day camp counselor in the summer and during the rest of the year I baby sat and sold raffles to raise money and worked whenever there was an opportunity to do so.

It was February 1946 and I was going to start attending Erasmus Hall High School, a school that required riding a bus to get there. That was a new and somewhat intimidating experience, to be an almost teenager off to the world. Francie and her happenings made me think that if she could be brave about new circumstances then so could I. The story is a coming-of-age tale that stands the test of time. I recently reviewed it and still found the book relevant.

Francie’s family, particularly after the father died, was entering poverty. Katie, Francie’s mother, told her children that education would be the best way to escape poverty. My mother told me that if I was going to college, I had best take some courses that would give me skills to let me work and help with my college expenses.

Other similarities in Francie’s life and my life include both of us being born in Williamsburg, an area in Brooklyn. Both of us also had (have) a younger brother and it was assumed in the family that both of them would go for further education, while we girls had to find a financial way to be able to attend school. Each of us did manage to continue with our education and, most importantly, we each found our fiancé in a school setting. Francie may or may not have married her beau, but I did.

The book, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” awakened me and helped me to become a person who could make decisions and carry out plans. It seemed that the book was written for me and all the young, innocent, new-to-the-world women who needed a chance to look at someone else’s life to help them discover where and how to begin “real” living. Did “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” scatter its charms and ideas over me? Oh, yes.

Harriet Leib and her husband, George, have been married for 61 years and have lived in Heritage Hills for 13 years. They have two married sons, four grandchildren and a great grandchild. Her hobbies are reading, theater-going, bridge and talking with friends.

Raina Lefkowitz

I remember my high school years as an avid reader, especially with books hidden under my desk in my English or social studies class. There was Erich Remarque’s tragic romance, “Three Comrades,” and Edna Ferber’s page-turner, “Saratoga Trunk.” For some reason, I can recall few of the required readings, except for “Silas Marner,” remembered more for the pancake-layered, red-lipstick-slashed face of the teacher than for the barely-skimmed novel.

But, you ask me about my most memorable book. Then it would have to be “Look Homeward Angel” by Thomas Wolfe. (This is not the white-suited author of “Bonfire of the Vanities” fame.) My friends and I “discovered” him as appealing to our sheltered lives yet with great hopes for experience. He wrote of his hunger for new worlds outside of his small town, and to this day, the sound of a far-off train whistle evokes for me what he and so many others living outside the great cities of America must have felt during the early years of the 20th century.

My friends and I copied and exchanged quotes from the book—such lush writing, so many adjectives. I would consider Wolfe to be “the world’s greatest adolescent” in his passionate and nalve craving for experience, and the lack of control in his language. And, of course, we found ourselves self-consciously, pretentiously emulating him in our writing for class and ourselves.

With all these long-ago lost notes between us, I do seem to remember one quote. Its meaning has aged well with me: “We have nothing for our hunger but the proud and trembling moments one by one.”

Raina Lefkowitz has lived in Heritage Hills for 10 years, pursuing interests in the arts through classes and involvement in the Chamber Music Society, Film Club and book groups galore. She was born in the Bronx and attended Music and Art High School and City College in Manhattan.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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