With the opening lines of her debut novel, Barren Island, Carol Zoref paints a scene of harsh immigrant lives in mid-nineteenth century New York. Hungry people cut up dead horses for a bit of meat, carcasses meant to be boiled down into glue and grease on a fictional New York island near the city.
From there, Zoref's story goes on to cover war, labor strife, and social liberties. Barren Island is published by Western Michigan University’s New Issues Poetry and Prose in 2017 and has been long-listed for the National Book Award.
“Barren Island takes place on a fictional island in Jamaica Bay, where Kennedy Airport is today,” Zoref says. “For many years, until the 1930s, the actual 'Barren Island' was the site of an industrial plant that was used for rendering glue and grease from the animals that lived in New York, primarily horses, before the combustion engine, before everybody had trucks and cars. Everything in New York was moved around by horse and by barge.”
Zoref’s characters, although living close to Manhattan, never go there. They live their entire lives on the island, where they find homes and where their children go to school. Island residents include Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, and African-American families.
“I set my story with the bookends of 1929 to 1939, which is the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, in September 1939,” Zoref says. “So it really covers the Depression era, when the world is in turmoil. I wondered what it would be like for these people, living on this island so close to one of the greatest cities in the world, yet at arm’s length from all that was going on. It’s a small-town existence in the shadow of a world-class city.”
While all of Zoref’s grandparents are Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who lost family members in the Holocaust, she says the book is not their story. But they also lived through similar struggles in a society that was dealing with labor strife, the market crash, racism, abortion, and war.
“All of these issues found their way to this little spit of land,” says Zoref.
Barren Island, Zoref’s first novel, won the 2015 Association of Writers and Programs Prize. Zoref is a fiction writer and essayist and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University. She lives in New York City.
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