The Smart One: A Grandfather’s Tale melds Ken Goodman’s ancestral history with a rollicking good story. The book, his first one for young readers, portrays a Jewish family’s quandary at the turn of the 20th century in the former Vilnius district of Lithuania, which is now in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic.
Goodman depicts Old World Eastern European Jewry while interweaving fun facts with a subtle sense of humor. For example, who knew that the village of Smorgon was the birthplace of the bagel?
In the nearby agricultural village of Karka, the author’s actual father, Duvid Mendel Gutman, is a young boy living with his parents and two older sisters. When a labor strike begins at Smorgon’s bagel factory where his sisters work, the family is in imminent danger – partly because they’re Jewish and partly because of their increasing commitment to left-wing politics.
Goodman’s grandfather must decide the family’s course of action, while his grandmother frets and periodically offers her two cents. Meanwhile, their older daughter is a strike leader, plotting with cohorts dressed as dancing bears who hide out in the woods. For them, change is in the air.
On May Day, the sisters dance around the maypole. “Hurray for May Day,” they sing. “Up with Mama! Down with the bosses!” When their papa returns from synagogue, a frequent argument ensues. Is it time to leave for America, where everyone has an equal right to education and fair wages?
Therein lies the heart of the book: Can the American dream uphold Goodman’s ancestors’ progressive politics and traditional Judaism?