I didn't have many memorable adventures as a child. The ones I do remember make me wish I'd had more of them—and more intense ones, filled with backyard fence-jumping and dark secrets known only to me and my closest friends, right in that age when a parent's world is another galaxy and cutting your finger to be blood brothers with your best bud somehow provided the assurance you'd both stay young forever.
So when Sin of Omission by David Evans Katz evoked the cloak and dagger mentality of pre-teen boyhood, for me it sparked a longing for the days when kept secrets added to my sense of self-importance. In the case of our narrator and protagonist, Danny Cogan, the reasons for keeping secrets were much more dire in nature.
The novel revolves around the Karavitch's, a Jewish family that immigrates to the US from Russia in the early 1900's. They settle in the predominantly Russian neighborhood of Suffolk Square in the suburban town of Middlesex, Massachusetts. The opening chapter prologues the central conflict when Danny, now a fifty-something businessman, gets a chilling phone call from his sister in present day Boston. She claims to have recognized Billy Cline, one of Danny's boyhood friends—a friend whom she thought had been dead for forty years! We then cut to turn-of-the-century Russia in the small, segregated Jewish village of Golosheveka. We follow Danny's great grandfather, Lev Karavitch, and his family through the prejudice and cruelty of living under the "pogroms" of tsarist Russia. Through trials and adventures of their own, the family manages to make sail for America. They live through the Depression and WWII and on into the postwar years. We reunite with Danny as a child in early 1960s Suffolk Square where his dark secret unfolds.
I thought the structure of the novel reflected a well-seasoned knack for storytelling. Katz uses most of his chapters as introductions to the individual stories of key characters. They are staggered down through the generations in a cascading effect, all culminating in the final sequences of Danny's childhood. The cast of parents, neighbors, and local tradespeople resonates well due to intertwining family conflicts dating back to the days in Russia. Katz manages to create an air of fullness and believability through this process of characterization—a difficult task for a storyline spanning 100 years (and 211 narrow paginations). But I felt he pulled it off well.
Actually, two very different stories come to mind for me when I think of this novel: the movie "Stand by Me" and "A Tale of Two Cities". The backyard atmosphere of Danny's 1960s childhood set in the backdrop of a Russian family epic wove a unique tapestry. And although Katz's prose lacks the dynamism and sophistication of more polished novelists, I thought these elements of character and structure well made up for what the book may have lacked in colorful verbiage.
What strikes me is how Katz put such an "epic" quality and spin on a subject that, having been a boy once myself, I believe exists universally in the imagination of many of us would-have-been adventurers. Cutting through yards and the neighbors' hedgerow, sneaking a smoke in the alley behind the garage, the haunted house on the corner, the girl next door you almost kissed but didn't, the gang of older kids you always had to watch out for—they etch the mind like dark heavy dreams, don't they? It was all mystique back then, the props and stages where struggles of real good and real evil were fleshed out between enemies and friends. Without realizing it we were imitating the fears and prejudices of our parents and grandparents and our great grandparents, as this novel heartfully portrays.
I'm eating a bagel with cream cheese right now in a large modern bookstore café, and I'm on my third cup of dark roast. I reflect on those memories of excitement and adventure, red-rover and playing in the sewer. And who I liked and who I hated, where I came from and how childhood friends had entered my life—and how most all of them I barely think of now, like shadows. And how fantastic it would be if there were something…something still buried under a lifetime of dust…something we swore we'd never speak of again…and like "Sin of Omission", to have it walk right into the café while I'm having lunch.
- Mike Terrell