Harry Bernstein was ninety-six years old when he published his first book, The Invisible Wall, so a little rambling is to be expected. The reader tends to forgive a nonagenarian if he loses his thread or if the writing goes a little flaccid at times. Old men are likely to veer off into side streets now and again.
Not this old man. His tale of growing up poor in England at the start of World War I is tightly woven, with nary an unnecessary word. He takes his time with the story, but every detail comes to fruition at some point as he chronicles his childhood on a street with an unseen border right down the middle: the families of poor Christian mill workers on one side and the families of poor Jewish tailors on the other.
Young Harry is not really all that interested in such social and religious politics, distracted as he is with other important matters – namely, clogs. The poor kid really wants clogs like the kids on the Christian side, because clogs are just plain cool. His mother declares such footwear low-class and insists she will buy him real shoes and send him to a much more posh school than the one attended by her older children. She arranges for him to attend, free of charge, and then sets to work turning an empty room in their house into a shop, where she sells old fruit so she can earn money to buy her son shoes for school. It is with jubilation that the reader sets out with Harry and his mother that first day of school, knowing how hard-won are his spot in that school and his new suit of clothing, not to mention the clogs sparking on the pavement.
It is moment built of the stuff of all bootstrap memoirs: the poverty-stricken family, the hard work against all odds, the determination to better oneself, even the shoes that are so far out of the family’s reach. That his mother fails to get the good shoes because her shop yields only enough cash for clogs? Well, even that is standard fare, demonstrating the family’s desperate circumstances.
What is unexpected is the moment Harry and his mother walk into the school, clogs striking the shiny, waxed floors so loudly that heads come popping out of classroom doors. The headmaster strides forward, confronts Harry’s mother, and orders them out of the school. No clogs on his perfect floors.
All that hard work, all that determination – they are supposed to pay off in these kinds of books. Harry is not supposed to be sent to the same crappy school as his siblings. That’s not the way these types of memoirs work, people.
And that’s what makes the book so real. Everything doesn’t work out, although some things do. The pathos isn’t in service of smarmy victory – it’s just the way life works out sometimes. People go to war and come back without legs. Unwed mothers stay unwed. People die.
Of course, there are moments of victory, and the final bridging of the two sides of the street is predictable, although certainly earned. There has to be a happy ending, after all, or Americans wouldn’t read it. (The ending isn’t all happy, because only an asteroid coming out of nowhere and flattening Harry’s horrid father would be a satisfying conclusion to this tale.)
The Invisible Wall offers hope that different sides, different faiths, can come together, perhaps not loving one another but learning to coexist. You can read it because it is a relevant theme in today’s world of bitterness and religious acrimony. Or, you can just read it because Harry Bernstein really knows how to tell a story.