When I look at my family tree, I sometimes wonder about the stories my ancestors could tell me. The dates and places for my great-great-great grandparents are interesting to have, but I wish I knew more about their lives.
I just finished a wonderful saga that made me think about all my relatives who traveled from Denmark to start a new life in America. Jonathan Evison’s Small World looks at the building of America over 170 years from the viewpoints of four ordinary families with remarkable stories. The current-day characters all struggle with normal 21st century problems, which are put into context by their 19th century ancestors, who deal with abject family separation, poverty, slavery, discrimination and persecution. The ancestors all have a common goal – to create a better world for their future generations, no matter the cost.
The book opens in 2019 with Walter Bergen, a railroad operator who is the patriarch of his Irish-American family. Walter, who is on his final Amtrak run before he retires, is the fourth generation of Bergens to work for the railroads. His first ancestor to work the rails is Finn, who along with his mother and twin sister Nora, arrive in America in 1851 in hopes of a better life.
Walter’s fateful Amtrak trip through a growing snowstorm happens to include the other present-day main characters, who are hoping to make changes in their lives.
Brianna Flowers is a single mother raising her thoughtful, 7-foot-tall teenage son, Malik, a high school basketball star with ambitions to play in college and the NBA. Brianna is determined that her son succeed, and struggles financially and personally to achieve this goal. Brianna and Malik are descended from Othello, later known as George Flowers. Othello, a slave owned by an odious master, desperately wants his freedom and to be with the lovely Cora.
Jenny Chen and her husband Todd Murphy are living the dream in San Francisco with their two boys. Jenny, who is away a lot with a stressful, high-paying job, worries that her sons are spoiled and entitled. Her ancestor is Wu Chen, who endures a grueling journey by ship from China to find opportunity in the California gold rush, only to become deeply troubled by what happens to him.
Laila Tully is an indigenous young woman in an abusive relationship, living paycheck to paycheck in an unfulfilling restaurant job. Her ancestor, Luyu Tully, struggles to survive in this land that once belonged to her people. She is met by hatred, violence and prejudice as a Native American, while trying to find a place to call home.
I’ve enjoyed two other books by Jonathan Evison – This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! and Lawn Boy, but Small World, his seventh novel, is clearly his masterpiece. I loved this epic tale, with its fully-drawn characters living through American history. The author clearly did a lot of research into the building of America to make the narrative feel authentic. There is a large cast of characters, but Evison effortlessly seams their stories together. I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. Even though the book is longer, at almost 500 pages, I found I wanted more. The author leaves some unanswered questions, which is understandable because the story had to end at some point. And isn’t filling in those blanks what readers’ imaginations are for?
The families I met made me reflect on how so much of this country was built on the backs of the people who had the least. Small World shows how the American Dream is still elusive for so many of our citizens. It also made me appreciate my ancestors and their struggles all the more.