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A Novel of Barren Island, NYC’s Forgotten Glue Factory

Told from the point-of-view of Marta Eisenstein Lane on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Carol Zoref’s novel Barren Island is the story of a long-forgotten factory island in New York’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s dead horses and other large animals were rendered into glue and fertilizer from the mid-19th century until the 1930’s. The island itself is as central to the novel as the members of the Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, and African-American factory families that inhabit it, including those who live their entire lives steeped in the smell of rotting and burning animal flesh.

The story begins with the arrival of the Eisenstein family, immigrants from Eastern Europe, and explores how the political and social upheavals of the 1930’s affect them and their neighbors in the years between the stock market crash of October 1929 and the start of World War II. Labor strife, union riots, the New Deal, the World’s Fair, and the struggle to save European Jews from the growing threat of Nazi terror inform this novel as much as the explosion of civil and social liberties between the two World Wars.

BarrenWinner of the Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction in the National Jewish Book Awards, Barren Island asks the question, how can one remember a world that no longer exists?  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Carol Zoref about what drew to her to this strange and scarcely known place, and how from the slenderest of threads, she was able to imagine a rich tapestry of a now-forgotten world.

YZM: How did you first learn about Barren Island? 

CZ: In an article in the New York Times about a book, The Fat of the Land by Benjamin Miller. The article featured a man who grew up on the historical Barren Island, a place that I’d never heard of.

YZM: What about the place inspired you to set a novel there?

CZ: Reading the article made me wonder what it would be like to grow up on a place like Barren Island, set apart yet in full view of New York City. I originally intended to write a short story told from the point-of-view of someone addressing that question. I ended up with a 400-page novel that took seven years to complete.

YZM: Tell us about your research process.

CZ: Much of the broad context of the novel came from what I call acquired knowledge, meaning that all of us learn a lot over the course of a lifetime, no matter how long or little we’ve been around. We remember what interests us by thinking about these things in new contexts as time passes. Some people remember baseball statistics, some people remember historical and political events. For example, I can’t remember not knowing about labor protests in Union Square, where I too have participated in protests of one sort or another. Whenever I participate in a protest, I think about these past protests and protesters and the challenges and dangers that they faced. Likewise, whenever I attend a performance at the Public Theater, I can’t help but remember the thousands of people who sought help through HIAS, which was headquartered in that building for many years.

My approaches to research were large and small. Reviewing a time-line of the Interregnum was as inspiring as it was interesting. I ended up reading about events from the early 20th century that played little or no role in the novel, such as the Influenza Epidemic, simply because I found them interesting. I was well aware of the epidemic prior to writing Barren Island, but mostly as an event that coincided with WW I and continued to kill many people in the years that followed. I became more curious about the details of the epidemic, perhaps because of the similarities and differences to AIDS, which is the plague of my lifetime. In terms of concrete information, I found pamphlets through the Sarah Lawrence College Library about the 1939 World’s Fair and about manufacturing shoes, both of which helped me map out those sections. Photographs from the Great Depression were a great source of insight. I never saw a photograph of Barren Island until after I completed the novel and the New York Public Library digitized its collections. However photographs of New York City during that era are widely available. I was also able to find out simple things by checking the archives of the New York Times. I didn’t know that there was a heat wave of historic proportions during the summer of 1939. Access to that type of information, which authors didn’t readily have in years past, made me feel beholden to accuracy for those kinds of details. Learning this enabled me to add texture to the action that takes place at that time.

Here is an example of something that I needed to correct before the book went to print: the children in the novel collect flotsam and jetsam in coffee cans, which in early drafts I referred to as Chock Full O’ Nuts cans. Only in my final read-through did I think to check on when those cans were introduced. I was a few years too early. Only Hills Brothers had coffee cans back then. I deleted the brand name, which was a simple fix. Had I not corrected this, I am certain that I would have heard from irate readers who felt that they could no longer trust the credibility of the novel. 

YZM: Marta’s parents are Jews from Eastern Europe but you write about other ethnic groups—Italians, Greeks and blacks—who also lived there. How did these different groups get along? 

CZ: There is a racial and ethnic pecking order on Barren Shoal, where much of the action takes place. Black men hold the most difficult and dangerous job, such as Mr. Douglass, who was a medic in WW I but shovels coal to fuel the factory furnace. In another example of racism, when Mr. DeWitt can no longer do his job in the cutting room, he takes the place of a night watchman who is African-American. The black man not only loses his job, but loses his housing. Rather than live in a watch house that was occupied by a black man, DeWitt tears it down and builds a new one with the help of the other white men on the island.

People of different ethnicities live side by side, but they have separate poker nights in DeWitt’s guardhouse, except on payday when everyone plays. The different ethnic groups interact when they are on Barren Shoal, but less so when they leave the island in order to celebrate a holiday, attend a funeral, or to relocate. People who move away from Barren Shoal end up in neighborhoods that are ethnically and racially segregated.

YZM: Marta observes, “We make mistakes, we apologize, we take corrective action, and we remember. This is what it means to be a person. You forget, you are nothing,” words which seem to describe the novel’s theme. 

CZ: Fiction mostly shows, but sometimes it tells. I agree with Marta. 




© 2011 Lilith Magazine