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Reader's Den in September: Unterzahkn by Leela Corman

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In the graphic novel Unterzakhn Leela Corman introduces Fanya and Esther Feinberg through dramatic events and their reactions to those events. The sisters are young jewish girls growing up in the early 20th century living secluded lives with little future but a marriage and babies. Under the controlling gaze of their mother, Minna, the girls are sheltered from education so as to "not become too goyish." Yet Fanya and Esther are resourceful and will rise out of the expected path regardless of the suffering to find a future that is not influenced by Minna.

In 1909, Fanya is witness to a botched abortion even before she can understand what it is exactly, and what a "lady doctor" is. Fanya appears young and childish, yet wise enough to ask question about the situation. This dramatic moment sets in motion Fanya's future. When Bronia, the lady doctor, comes to ask Minna if she can teach the girls to read and write, Minna grasps tightly to her traditional ways and sees no need for school—especially since she did not attend school. Bronia pushes and only one of the daughters, Fanya, is allowed to learn to read and write. These weekly sessions, along with her observation of the cruel lives of the women around her, leads Fanya to never want children (and sets her on a particular path in life). This snapshot from the larger narrative is a perfect example of how Leela Corman presents the story in images and narrative—like seeds planted with the expectancy of life, these small moment influence the present and create the future for the sisters.

Esther's defining moment, by contrast, is a chance encounter when she is asked to deliver a package to Miss Lucille's Horse and Rider, a theater and brothel. She finds the magical and flashy world of the Follies amazing and dreams of dancing and being in show business. Miss Lucille gives her the opportunity to make a little money running errands, learn to dance, and get away from her mother a few days a week. Esther is only half aware of the darker, more sexual side of Miss Lucille's business when a man tries to attack her. It is not until 1912, when Esther is tricked into delivering a drink to a client that she learns first-hand of the very dark, violent nature of some clients. Yet, rather than crumble from the event, Esther moves forward.

The narrative in Unterzakhn focuses mostly on the women in the Feinberg family and those that surround the sisters. Rob Clough from The Comics Journal says, "Unterzakhn is also a celebration of women as survivors, as doers, as fallible beings who have to engage with an extra set of obstacles that men never even have to consider." Fanya survives through education. Esther uses her sexuality to gain independence and a separation from her family. Minna uses her controlling nature and her own sort of sexuality to continue on in the harsh environment of New York City.

Questions for the next sections:
Years 1895 & 1896, pages 83-118
Year 1917, pages 121-160

  1. What is Isaac Feinberg's story? How does his personality and characteristics contribute to the family dynamic?
  2. What can break a person's spirit? Who is able to keep their identity in the face of hardship?
  3. Who is to blame for the hardship of Fanya and Esther's?
  4. Do the characters choose their own path in life or is it shown to them? What are the motivations behind the path of Fanya and Esther?
  5. Who has power and independence?

If you need the book, you can borrow a copy from the NYPL by requesting it through the NYPL catalog. This edition is published by Schocken Books in New York City, 2012.

Did you miss a Reader's Den Book Discussion? You can travel back in time and continue the conversations of previous discussions and learn about future books on the discussion schedule page.

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