There are some truths that can be captured more beautifully using symbolism. The plight of the immigrant was captured so brilliantly by Helene Wecker in The Golem and the Jinni. Using the magical creatures to represent two very different immigrants was part of the genius behind this tale.
The Jinni’s Quest for Freedom
The Jinni is portrayed as a very powerful being who is bound to a human master. He yearns for freedom most of all.
His reflection on how great he used to be echoes how immigrants who are highly educated or belong to respected/noble families in their countries of origin feel. They take on whatever jobs they can to survive in this new land – doctors who come to America and work as nurses, for example. Or scions of wealthy families who start out in retail sales or washing dishes to get job experience locally before moving on to better opportunities.
The human master can be family members they are trying to raise out of poverty. It can also be the simple need to make it on their own without their inherited wealth and responsibilities.
The iron cuff that reminds him constantly of his slavery may symbolize what keeps him caged. Cultural identity chains us to a colonial mentality that makes us think that we cannot be better than those who were born in America. It’s a reverse racism of sorts. Plus being a stranger in a strange land makes you feel like you are a second class citizen. No one was commanding the Jinni for most of the story but he still felt less than he used to be.
The Golem’s Quest to Do No Harm
The Golem’s nature is to do what her master wills and suddenly she finds herself with no master to obey. She is scared of her nature to harm others.
A Woman’s Plight
I think this is especially symbolical for women who are used to having a husband who protects them and provides for them. In America where you have to work to make a living on your own, it’s easy to seek out a provider or a protector when you are discouraged by the discrepancy in pay or other cases of gender bias. It’s easy to forget about your own potential to be the master of your fate.
The Jinni always chafes at the Golem’s contentment with her job at the bakery, with not going out at night, and following the rules that society dictates. With all the opportunities around her, she is happy to stay in a cage. This is true for immigrant women from a lot of male-dominated cultures. They live within boundaries set for them by the traditions of the country of their birth. This makes them feel safe. By following the rules, they will not cause trouble for those around them. They are content with their lot in life even if they can aim for so much more.
Golem Carries the Jinni Out of the Fountain
The Golem carried the Jinni who is almost dead out of the fountain where he intended to end his own life. It calls to mind how women here have the power to take their families out of poverty. To carry their powerful husbands in their darkest hours out into the light. It’s a very inspiring scene.
Love From a Shared Plight
Both unable to show their true natures for fear of being hunted down and burned at the stake, they both try hard to conform – to be normal. Yet they know the potential of the other, how powerful they truly are. They become friends and share their plight. Where there was no attraction admiration blossomed, a deep regard for each other – then a love deeper than anything they can find with humans who will never fully understand what they’re going through develops. This was one of the most romantic love stories I have listened to in a long time.
A Common Enemy
Whether the enemy is the people who need immigrants to prosper far away from home or a society wary of the potential of the immigrants in their midst, just like the Golem and the Jinni most immigrants have a common enemy. And they prosper by defeating their common enemy together. That’s why immigrant populations are so tribal in America. Each culture forms a community where they can help each other navigate this new world that they must conquer.
This is the most insightful book about immigrant life in America I have ever read. Even though it is historical fiction, the problems facing immigrants in the book still exist today.
I would recommend it to readers who love fantasy, magical realism, and a great love story. This is definitely a five-star read.