Inspired by his grandfather, Michael Vines details a Jewish immigrant’s story in St. Louis
Michael Vines’ grandfather, Harry Beckerman, arrived in St. Louis in 1919. The Jewish immigrant from Poland was escaping violence and oppression. Beckerman settled just a few blocks north of Fairground Park on Warne Avenue and set up a shoe repair shop.
Beckerman built a new life in St. Louis. Those events serve as inspiration for Vines’ new novel, “Harry Gets Wise.” The book’s protagonist, similarly named Harry Becker, pursues his vision of the American Dream.
“The dream is to come to America, the land of opportunity, where all the immigrants pretty much had the same vision of America,” Vines said. “It was a place where they could live in freedom, have new opportunities, to raise their families and give them opportunities, and to not be subjected to the oppression that they had been in their native countries.”
Events in the novel diverge from their real-life inspiration when, one day, two members of a local mob show up at the shoe repair shop and demand payment. Becker goes to the police, but he soon discovers that the beat cop is on the take.
That’s the start of how Becker’s vision of the American Dream erodes. But that’s not all.
“It extends to the world outside of his family and his business, because this story takes place primarily around 1954, and that is the height of the Joe McCarthy era,” Vines said. “[Becker] feels betrayed by everything that Joe McCarthy represents. So he comes as a naïf, and he has to realize that things aren't as they seem in America.”
Vines spent the first five years of his life in north St. Louis before moving to University City. After graduate school, he worked as copywriter and creative director for prominent ad agencies in New York. Now retired, Vines still lives in New York City, but St. Louis remains close to his heart.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.