Layle Silbert's stories trace struggles and joys of lives overlooked. In The Free Thinkers: Two Novellas, she gives these lost lives a new voice, recovering in exacting detail the world of newly arrived Eastern European Jews in turn-of-the-century America. Silbert's stories chronicle their arrival in Chicago and New York, and follow them as they trade Yiddish and Russian for English, find work in factories and Jewish newspapers, attend Zionist meetings, and struggle toward the promise of freedom and happiness.
The Free Thinkers tells two tales. The first novella focuses on Ida, an independent woman, a "freethinker" devoted to finding her own way in America. A factory forelady, a patron of the theater, and an instinctive feminist, she is determined to find total freedom in a man's world—no matter where it leads her.
The collection's other novella chronicles the lives of three sisters from the Ukraine as they find husbands and start their own families in America. Two masterful chapters at the heart of the novella describe their mother's arrival, after the great war and the revolution, to a small Indiana town. She is "a vision, in her clothes, her posture, the very air around her, a vision of a sight on a street in the village they'd all come from, suddenly seamlessly transported into this pleasant spring morning to the very middle of America."
In Layle Silbert's tender work, as in the best stories of Chekhov, the slightest gesture carries with it the weight of the world. Nothing happens, everything happens. Silbert's writing is delicate, as if dusted by the wings of a visiting angel, here to present for posterity the way things were.