My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Journey of an American Son (2014) by John Hazen tells of the epic life of Benjamin Albert from his time in his mother’s (Molly’s) womb crossing the Atlantic and being born as an American on October 3, 1897 at St. Benedict’s Hospital, to growing up and studying at Lord Stirling Elementary School, then to obtaining a degree at Rutgers in 1917, a year after having met Catherine at the Rutgers College library, and then to his volunteering for the Great War.
Much of the first half of the novel is told in Ben’s point of view, but the latter half is told in his wife’s (Catherine’s) point of view, and one of the most heart-warming scenes is thus:
“I got up and went to the desk in my office. I pulled a black tin box out of the top right drawer and returned to sit back down beside Harry. I opened the box and extracted the dollar that Harry’s namesake had left for Ben those many years ago. I handed Harry the dollar bill, telling him he had to be very careful with it.
“‘I want to tell you a story. This story is about the man you’re named after and about the woman who looked after you early in your life and about the man she called her American son’” (p 320).
Much of Ben’s life, however, holds a semblance to the story of Jacob: “Like the story of Jacob in the Torah, her new child was to be named Benjamin of old, who was born after Jacob and Rachel arrived in Canaan, this Benjamin would be a symbol to the world of the Albert family’s arrival in America” (p 36-37).
And with a drive to accomplish something Benjamin sought the most from the world: “Benjamin was not going to spend the rest of his life running a store. He was going to be a learned man with a profession. Nothing was to stand in the way of that goal” (p 56). Nothing ever did. Not even World War I.
With vivid prose and a bit of clever foreshadowing, Hazen captures the familial love found between Ben and his mother Molly as Ben heads to war:
“The train whistle blared as it approached the station. Ben hugged his mother tightly. She took his face in her sturdy hands and kissed him as only a mother can. I could hear her tell him to be safe and keep his head down. She then took both his hands and looked him in the eye.
“‘Your Papa. Your Papa, he would be so proud of you, our American boy’” (p 75).
The twists and tears would keep rolling throughout the 320-page life-long journey of one American man’s fate, and whether he would survive the Great War raging in Europe pulls the reader deeper in as Hazen deftly handles description and history as though a magus summoned the forces:
“The only city of note they passed through was Rouen. Ben could feel his jaw physically drop as he looked out the window across the river and saw the Rouen Cathedral dominating the entire city. He had read that just a short thirty years earlier, the cathedral had been the tallest building in the world…
“As the soldiers disembarked the train, they could hear a low constant rumble. If it were not for the crystal clear sky, one would have thought the distant thunder was the harbinger of an approaching storm. Everyone knew, though, that this was no harmless cloudburst. Rather, it was the French artillery doing its utmost to halt the German advance on Paris, which was about 75 miles to the south…
“Ben was impressed with the design of this hole in the ground. While the floor was earthen, solid thick timbers lined the length of the trench. The trench extended back a further ten feet with a timber and earthen roof. This was where the soldiers could huddle in case of rain or heavy artillery shelling. There were a couple of bedrolls and a small butane camp stove under the overhang. Some coffee was brewing on the stove…
“Just before he was thrown on top of Ben, the smile on the Frenchman’s face was immediately replaced by a look of astonishment as the back of his head burst from the impact of the explosion. For the most part, in his crouching position Ben was shielded from the blast. The dead Frenchman flopped on top of him” (94-95, 99).
Wounded, Ben makes his exit from the war but not from the story—which shall see him end up in an Indian prison guilty of murder in Calcutta while his wife, Catherine, seeks to clear his good name.
But before prison and India, Ben finds himself enjoying life inside a geisha house in Japan. Ben sits and watches Kiko, the geisha, dance:
“She stood up and untied the sash around her waist opening her kimono, which she then let slip to the floor…She proceeded to her undulate her hips, slowly swaying before taking a few graceful steps along the floor around him. She had a wonderfully lithe, athletic body. Ben wondered what her face looked like beneath the paint…
“He could feel himself become aroused. He was still unsure what he wanted to do or what he would do. His mind raced from Catherine, Harry and his mother at home to the delectable creature dancing before him and back again. He tried rationalizing that geisha was a revered profession; these women were accorded great status in Japanese society. He could justify his actions as taking part fully in Japanese culture. As he was ruminating and imagining himself making love to the young woman, Kiko stopped dancing” (p 171-172).
And after the temptation at the geisha house passes, Ben and Kiko cross paths once more:
“As the small craft was bobbing its way through the choppy water, Ben noticed a similar launch heading in the opposite direction. In the boat was a petit, pretty young woman wearing a grey kimono. Her shoulder length hair blew in the breeze. Unlike many women Ben had seen, she was wearing no makeup or jewelry. It was not until the boats were nearly side by side did she happen to look in his direction. In an instant they both recognized the other. It was Kiko” (p 174).
Hazen doesn’t pull any punches. He asks some hard questions as well as Ben arrives in India to racism while many more ethical dilemmas the Jewish War-hero begins to consider with a heavy heart:
“‘Do lepers know any happiness in their lives?’
“The doctor turned to them and smiled.
“‘They are people, just people. Their problem is that the only function society gives them is for them to die, preferably out of sight and mind. Unfortunately, there is not much happiness in this endeavor. I shall tell them that you were asking. It will please them that someone inquired about them in this manner.’
“Ben looked in his face for irony, to see if the doctor was mocking him and his question. There was no irony, only sincerity. He truly felt they would appreciate the inquiry” (p 185).
It is with this new found sympathy and empathy which causes Ben to feel for the plight of the Indian laborers as he begins to investigate strange deaths related to accidents involving Langdan Textiles, the company he works for.
“The telegram was terse. I later learned that Ben could only send a maximum of seven words. It read: Arrested for murder. Innocent. Framed. Help. Ben.
“I read and re-read the seven words over dozens of times, trying to distill any further meaning out of the meager message, but nothing was forthcoming. All I knew was that he was arrested for murder. Whom was he accused of murdering? He said he was innocent, of this I had absolutely no doubt. Why did they believe he did it? He was framed. Who was framing him and why? He asked for my help. What can I do? Should I rush to India to be with him? How could I rush to India with a young baby to take care of? Is there anything I can do from here?” (p 219)
And so the adventure to free the American son from the Indian prison begins, and the reader will never see what’s coming next.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers