Gerald Kolpan

Magic Words

The tale of a Jewish boy-interpreter, the world's most estimable magician, a murderous harlot, and America's greatest indian chief

by gerald-kolpan Read about him

Review: The Reporter Group

Book Review: Adventures in the wild west
By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Wild West adventures are not the first thing that come to mind when thinking about Jewish immigration to America. However, many Jews did help settle the West, although I doubt few of them had as exciting a life as Julius Meyer, one of the main characters in Gerald Kolpan’s novel “Magic Words” (W. W. Norton and Company). The book’s cover offers a simple overview of its plot, referring to it as “the tale of a Jewish boy-interpreter, the world’s most estimable magician, a murderous harlot and America’s greatest Indian chief.” The magician, Alexander Herrmann, is also Jewish, but Julius (the boy-interpreter) is the heart and soul of the novel.

Cousins Julius and Alexander arrive in Philadelphia on the same boat. Although Alexander is a talented magician, his magic is all slight of hand. Julius, however, has a wonderful, natural skill: He not only can quickly understand almost any language, but soon speak it with the same accent and skill as a native. The novel opens with Julius’ death (leaving open the question of whether it was suicide or murder) and then moves back in time to follow Julius’ adventures from the moment his ship reached the United States. He’s emigrated from Europe in order to help Max, his brother, with his store in Omaha. In 1867, the city lacks most creature comforts and the surrounding countryside isn’t particularly safe. Max has few brotherly feelings for Julius and soon sends him to barter with the Indian tribes. When it seems that Julius might be dead, Max is more concerned with his missing merchandise than the loss of his brother. However, Julius manages not only to ingratiate himself with the Indians who captured him, but finds himself more at home with them than the Omaha settlers.

Julius’ storyline intertwines with those of the other characters: Alexander, who travels the U.S. and Europe, and is soon considered the greatest magician in the world; Standing Bear, the chief of the Indian tribe that captured Julius; and Lady-Jane Little Feather, an Indian prostitute from Omaha who plays a role in the lives of all three men. The plot, which brings the stories of these characters together, offers the readers everything from grand adventure to moving moments of true love. Although at times the book resembles a penny novel about the Wild West, some sections portray the all-too-terrible reality of the United State’s treatment of Native Americans.

The heart of the novel is Julius’ connection to the Indians he has come to love. For him, they are part of his extended family, if only because the whites treat them the same way the Europeans treat Jews: “They are like us, Max, not because of their holy books or their learned men, but because they are unique – just as we have always been unique… They have had their country taken, as Jerusalem was taken from us. If the Indian surrenders, they say he is craven – a coward with no stomach for battle. If he fights, he is a beast, said to drink the blood of his victims. Where have we heard that before?” Although Julius feels more Indian than Jew, his cousin Alexander suggests that his fight to help the Indians comes from his Judaism, telling him that “as an Indian you have become the best Jew I have ever known. Go to your people, Kleiner Julius. Help them as no one has helped us.” However, Julius’ connection to Judaism later comes shining through in the most moving passage in the novel.

“Magic Words” is a fast-paced work; I read its almost 400 pages in a weekend. While the interlinking plots are fun and exciting, Kolpan never ignores his characters, creating major and minor ones with depth and detail. The plots are neatly tied at the end, with the mystery of the opening satisfactorily resolved. For those interested in learning more, Kolpan’s epilogue outlines which parts of the novel are based on fact and which come from the author’s imagination. Here’s hoping other writers follow Kolpan’s lead by offering stories that focus on colorful Jewish characters from our nation’s past.

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