Author Madeline Sharples bases Papa’s Shoes on her aunt’s story about her relationship with a young teacher while attending high school in Danville, Illinois. The book depicts a Polish Jewish family’s early 1900s immigration from Poland to the American Midwest and tells the story of their lives there.
The Schuman Jewish family saga is marked with sorrow and discord and is complex, so that a reader may at times be challenged to follow the story flow. Ira Schuman works as a shoemaker alongside his brother in small-town Danville and is eventually joined by his family, wife Ruth and children Charles and Ava. The children acclimate quickly, but Ruth is morose, mired in grief for the deaths of three of her children in Poland. Ira finds comfort elsewhere even after Ruth emerges from her sadness. Charles, tenacious and ambitious, moves to Chicago for college and law school but seems to change little. Ava falls in love with Byron, the college man who directed her high school senior class play; but because he is not Jewish, she is forced by her parents to move to Chicago. She welcomes the ability to live independently but chafes against the strictures of her religion. After much prevarication, Ava defies religion and tradition to embrace life on her own terms, to the detriment of her relationship with her family.
Sharples intersperses Yiddish terms in the text, but provides a glossary. I did not find her use of dialect distracting since I was able to discern the word’s meaning even without consulting the glossary. I found the dialect charming and realistic as the characters straddled different cultures and languages.
Papa’s Shoes has many themes. It addresses the challenges of immigration, acclimation, and grief. It deals with the conflict of an older generation’s beliefs with the widening experience of a rebellious younger generation, especially when it comes to marriage outside the traditional faith. Despite Ava’s pleas to be open-minded, Charles castigates his sister: “That’s the real problem. You with a family. A mixed marriage with children who are neither fish nor fowl.”
The story reflects the clash between modernism and tradition, between life in a small town and life in an urban metropolis in the nineteen twenties. It contributes to our understanding of the exacting costs and rewards of immigration in early modern America.