Reviews 2012

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Images of Eastern European Jewish Migration to America in Contemporary American Children’s Literature

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Images of Eastern European Jewish Migration to America in Contemporary American Children’s Literature. Jana Pohl. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2011. 298 pages. $87 (hardback).

Jana Pohl’s Looking Forward, Looking Back is broad and ambitious in scope, as it attempts to expose the many questions of representation that arise in children’s literature portraying Jewish-American migration. In her introduction, Pohl outlines five major aims of her study. Pohl seeks to identify books which involve these representations; to explore how they depict both the nation of departure and America; to understand the Eastern European and American literary traditions that these representations originate from; to examine how visions of nation are utilized in these texts; and to explore how representations of nation “relate […] to the children’s literature system” (p.15). Pohl sets out to accomplish these goals in seven parts, each of which is divided into several sub-sections.

Overall, Looking Forward, Looking Back does indeed accomplish some of these tasks, laying out an intriguing initial framework in an excellent introduction to the texts and themes which form these cultural representations. However, the text falls short of answering all the questions Pohl sets out to tackle, delivering a product which contains some strong individual sections, but which fails to come together as a cohesive whole. Much of this confusion stems from organizational issues. In Part 1, Pohl defines and delineates her corpus. Alongside this, Pohl provides an introduction to imagology, the study of national representations. Pohl’s discussion of imagology provides a solid introduction to the field, considering the importance of national representation in children’s literature, and pointing to some of the provocative questions of identity, self, and other which imagology raises. However, even in these excellent initial chapters, several issues come to the fore. Pohl’s text clearly originated as a doctoral dissertation, and the organization of the piece does not translate well into book form. Several strands of Pohl’s argument, for example, an analysis of the significance of colour in picturebooks, are never wholly followed through. Pohl promises an in-depth explanation of the function of colour in Part VI, and yet, uses the symbolism of colour within her argument long before, making unsubstantiated material central to her early claims. These organizational issues lead to a disjointed thesis and frequent repetition. As Pohl divides her text into sub-sections that do not necessarily connect, she similarly provides unnecessary summations and ‘conclusions’ in each chapter, spending inordinate time outlining what she has done, or intends to do, rather than developing her argument.

The problems that these issues raise comprise both the greatest critique and praise I can offer Pohl’s text. The true frustration of Pohl’s work is its unfulfilled potential. When Pohl follows an argument through, the result is a strong and compelling piece of scholarship. And yet, for the majority of her text, Pohl suggests yet skirts key issues, too often focusing on description and summation at the expense of the nuanced arguments which her initial questions demand.

A prime example of this can be seen in Pohl’s discussion of memory throughout the text. In a piece concerned with representations of experience, Pohl’s text contains a surprisingly cursory consideration of the functions and motivations behind the utilization of specific cultural narratives. While she convincingly establishes a trend within her corpus for representations of an oppressive and Anti-semitic Russian homeland, and an often-idealized representation of America, these individual points lack a theoretical discussion that truly extends beyond the observation that these works reflect a pattern. It is only in her later discussion of The Streets of Gold and in the closing reflections of her conclusion that Pohl begins to truly engage in an interrogation of these tropes. This section comes together well, but by this point, too many of the argument’s previous, disparate threads have been lost.

A tremendous amount of research has gone into this investigation, and Pohl constructs an excellent historical, social, and literary framework through which she bases her exploration of these texts. It is against this backdrop in the final section that Pohl introduces some of the nuances that were missing before, examining how notions of homeland change when represented in different forms of children’s texts, considering tensions within immigrant identity itself, and exploring how the period of the text’s production shapes how memory is represented. Similarly, Pohl uses this final section to broach issues of adult power, discussing the shifts which occur as adults choose what to represent in a ‘translation’ from adult literature to picturebook.

This final discussion is strong, as is Pohl’s conclusion. However, these strengths point to the rest of the book’s omissions, as it is only in the final two sections of her text that Pohl engages with issues of memory, trauma, and migration-identity, questions which cried out for treatment in her initial chapters, and without which, her examinations of national representation were unfortunately lacking. This critique is indicative of the book as a whole – a piece which contains excellent sections, but whose successes stand in stark contrast with its weaker sections, underscoring the book’s lack of a solid and cohesive structure. This is compounded by significant typos and grammatical errors throughout the text, which detract from Pohl’s argument, and sometimes obscure meaning.

Looking Forward, Looking Back is a fascinating work, which while at some points is quite compelling, is unfortunately flawed in execution. Despite its many difficulties, however, the depth of Pohl’s research and the excellent introduction to the field which she does provide, do lead to a highly promising conclusion. Despite my many critiques, I hope that Pohl will not stop here, but will take her investigation further, exploring the many exciting avenues and ideas she has unlocked during the course of her research.

Susan Tan
University of Cambridge, England