Monday, December 9, 2019

THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD


YOU WERE THERE BEFORE MY EYES


"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
~ William Faulkner


“You Were There Before My Eyes” is a tale of immigrants forsaking the old world and its traditional ways to be part of the new world represented by the  technological revolution led by Henry Ford and his Model T automobile in Detroit. Maria Riva weaves a multi-layered story of this historical period in America through the lives of Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Catholics, Jews, men and women who come together in a boarding house in Highland Park. The residents live together, eat together and come together – as a family. The matriarch of the boarding house Hannah creates a warm, loving environment for the multi-cultural boarders residing under her roof.

Jane, unhappy within the confines of a small traditional Italian village agrees to marry a man who doesn’t love her and return with him to the new world.  With the help of Hannah she transitions into her new life as a wife and her new life in America. Ambitious and unconventional, Jane sits quietly sewing in the living room after dinner eavesdropping on the men’s conversations to learn English, business, and the history of her new country. Underneath a veneer of female respectablility Jane is absorbing ways to break the old world restrictions imposed on women. The New World offers a tantalizing glimpse of personal freedom for her.

The dichotomy that is
Maria Riva
Henry Ford is depicted by the boarders. On one side, the immigrant men, who earn a generous living working at the Highland Park, have a reverence for the paternalistic company founder. On the other side, Ford’s Utopia is resisted by the immigrant wives who form a furtive network of spies to sabotage attempts by Ford’s Benevolent Secret Police to monitor and regulate their lives.

In a prelude to the turmoil brewing in Europe, the boarders, seemingly safe in the new world, are shaken by the visit of a relative from Germany who is openly anti-Semitic and a follower of Hitler. 

This story is a microcosm of the historical forces that would engulf the world in the early twentieth century. Riva’s characters resonate with authenticity and charm. Beautifully written, the reader feels like a fellow boarder observing the lives of the men and women in Hannah’s household. Maria Riva allows the reader to get acquainted with the characters and to feel the warmth and friendship in the boarding house. Knowing how world events would unfold and change their lives makes reading this wonderful book a bittersweet experience.