Lore Segal (then Groszmann) was born in Vienna in 1928. After the 1938 Anschluss with Hitler’s Germany, she was put on the first Kindertransport and spent the next ten years in England, completing university there. After a stay in the Dominican Republic, she and her mother were able to move to the United States (her father had died shortly before the end of the war). They lived in an apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Her mother died at 100.
Segal has written a variety of books. Her best known are perhaps “Other People’s Houses” and the childen’s book “Tell Me a Mitzi”. I just read “Her First American”, published in 1985. I assume that both “Other People’s Houses” (life of Austrian Jewish refugees in England) and “Her First American” (life of an Austrian Jewish refugee in American) have an autobiographical base. How close they were to Segal’s true experiences, I am not sure.
Our heroine, Ilka Weissnix, a woman in her early 20s, has just arrived in New York from Europe. It’s the early 1950s. Her English is very poor, and she is overwhelmed by the big city and all it contains. Upon being told that New York is not really America, she is given the money by her cousin to take a bus trip across the country. She wants to find out as much about America as she can.
By chance, in a small, nothing town in Nevada (or was it Utah?), between trains, she drops into a bar (or is it a restaurant) to pass the time, and she meets Carter Bayoux, an African American in his mid-40s, who is clearly a unique specimen. They meet again in New York and begin a year long affair. Carter, who is in some ways more central to the book than Ilka, is an intellectual (a writer and teacher), a friend of the rich and famous (and a veritable name dropper), a man of many affairs and marriages, a person of meager finances and, perhaps most crucially, an alcoholic. He introduces Ilka to America, to be sure, and to many other things, sometimes treating her well, and other times not. Ilka, with her basic English and malapropisms, and Carter make, of course, an unlikely duo – funnier than either happy or sad, and the book becomes a humorous, picaresque coming of age and coming to America tale, sensitive on both accounts.
Ilka, like Segal, lives with her mother in Washington Heights, Carter is apparently based on an actual friend of the writer (perhaps not the same kind of friend), and Ilka’s early New York job experiences parallel those of Segal. But of course there are differences. When she came to the United States, Segal was a bit older than Ilka, and had the linguistic benefit of having lived for a decade in Britain.
Carter comes across as someone who, for a variety of reasons but especially his addiction, will come to a bad ending. Ilka, on the other hand, seems to absorb America like a sponge. You know she will be all right. An amusing book, “Her First American” will keep you turning the pages, and while you do, you will learn a little about America, and about those people who find it a little harder to just fit in.