Displaced Persons: Stories

Image of Displaced Persons: Stories
Release Date: 
June 1, 2024
New American Press
Reviewed by: 

“whatever streets they walk, whatever wisdom they earn, these brave people don’t simply abandon old lands. They take the reader along in creating new ones.”

In Displaced Persons, Joan Leegant’s breathtaking short story collection, ordinary people with extraordinary histories, broken hearts, and shattered lives are in exile from war, violent crime, mental illness, or simply dashed hopes. Leegant’s characters, to paraphrase the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, repair their unchosen pasts by creating what future they still can.

In “Hunters and Gatherers,” a single mother keeps her mentally ill son alive with only a fierce, realistic love to aid her: “She knows it’s just a teaspoon in the ocean, a way to buy some time. Her meager efforts to keep him safe for just a moment longer. But this is the moment she has.”

Half of the 14 stories in Displaced Persons are set in Israel and the rest in America. Leegant’s characters, nearly all of whom are Jewish, are not symbols of victimhood, metaphors for history, or avatars of anxiety and existential dread. The American Jews, however, do seem more frazzled than the Israelis, certainly more assimilated and confused in holding onto an identity they don’t seem to understand for reasons they don’t quite know. To the Israelis “the Americans are all so squeaky clean. They arrive full of idealism, eager to improve society with their three hundred years of democracy and can-do spunk and sympathy for the underdog. They come with advanced degrees and a passion for recycling and the latest ideas for improving the status of women. They bring small fortunes and sometimes big ones and the habit of wearing seat belts and waiting patiently in lines . . . and worldly Israelis like Doron and Ronit and Galia and Lev find them likeable and sometimes admirable but always naïve.”

Yet Displaced Persons’ characters are all so fully and compassionately drawn it’s hard to remember they exist only in a story. Instead, they seem to continue, wide-eyed and wiser, more loved and loving, after the last page is turned.

Leegant knows that it’s only when someone is forced out of a familiar place that a person can learn all that would perhaps rather not be known. That necessary, unwanted wisdom might be the messy reality of adulthood amid the turmoil of daily life in the Middle East (“Beautiful Souls”), or the realization that even if forgiveness isn’t desired it might still be possible to prevent a legacy of intra-familial revenge (the stellar “The Baghdadi”).

Leegant may be optimistic, but she’s never naïve. In “Wonder Women,” which lifts the veil on the myths of Israel’s founding to reveal the trauma of abandoned daughters who find friendship, even joy, across the generations, Leegant writes: “Tami is at work writing up a trade involving oil from the South China Sea for a Russian-Israeli billionaire in Cyprus she wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley when her phone beeps.”

In “Remittances,” a woman barely survives a violent sexual attack in her birth country only to find a home in a new one: “After almost three years in the country, Aryeh has convinced me I need to do this, not because I need the work permit or the new-citizen tax breaks on a washing machine or because, like the Ethiopians or the Argentinians or the Iranians or, lately, the French, I am a Jew from a country that won’t especially want me back, but because I need to make a commitment to a new life so that I can let the old one go.”

Yet whatever streets they walk, whatever wisdom they earn, these brave people don’t simply abandon old lands. They take the reader along in creating new ones.