by Nicholas Gage
In March 1949, Nikola Gatzoyiannis, age 9, sailed for America to live with the father he had never met. With him on board ship were three older sisters (a fourth would come later) and a few possessions he had managed to smuggle out during his escape from civil war-torn Greece. One especially cherished keepsake was a saint’s relic given him by his mother, Eleni, who, during the madness of civil strife, had been shot to death for arranging the escape of 20 people, including four of her own children. Nikola was leaving a closed world—a mountain village filled with the smell of burning wood and nagging goats, shady trees and a hard sun—for freedom. His mother had asked him to erase his old world from his memory, but Nikola knew that was something he would never do. It is to our benefit that he hasn’t.
A Place for Us continues the journey Nicholas Gage began so brilliantly with Eleni, his 1983 best-seller about his mother’s murder by Communist guerrillas. Now Gage takes us to the Greek community of Worcester, Mass., to revisit his boyhood with a 56-year-old man he met as a stranger and grew to love as a father.
Traditional Greek ways were still very much alive in Worcester in the ’50s and ’60s: Marriages were arranged, religious rituals followed, and feuds erupted as easily as the all-night gambling sessions in crowded coffeehouses. Nikola knew that another America, with its own values and practices, was out there somewhere, but finding it took many years. At first, he and his youngest sister were placed in a public school class for the mentally retarded because they spoke no English. Eventually Nikola transferred to a Catholic school, but he first began to grasp his new language by reading an old encyclopedia and seeing every Cagney and Bogart film that came to the local movie house. Life at home was difficult. He grew up tormented by his mother’s death and angry about his father’s role in that death:
” ‘You’ve wasted your whole life [gambling] in that coffeehouse!’ I said righteously. ‘And all your money too…. Now, we’re forced to live in a neighborhood like this and you go blaming me for the kids I hang around with! If you hadn’t squandered your money at the coffeehouse, we could be living in the best neighborhood in Worcester. And if you had sent for us before the guerrillas came, the way Mana begged you to, she might still—’ ” ‘Enough! Not another word!’ he screamed.”
A Place for Us is a touching look at an immigrant’s life in a harsh new country. It is a story of small moments shadowed by the spirit of the mother no longer there, Eleni. Gage writes with a gentle touch, allowing events to be played out, keeping a I safe distance, knowing that the immigrant’s tale has a rhythm all its own.
An ex-reporter for the New York Times, Gage is at his best writing of the battles fought to keep the old ways of Greece alive in a new land. Those battles, like the pages of this fine book, were filled with humor, anger, jealousy and love. A Place for Us is more than a worthy successor to Eleni; it is a testament to the iron will of the American immigrant and his determination not only to find a place in I his adopted land, but to make that land the I better for his being there. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)