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The Puzzle King    by Betsy Carter order for
Puzzle King
by Betsy Carter
Order:  USA  Can
Algonquin, 2009 (2009)

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* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

Although a work of fiction, this novel was inspired by the history and mythology of the author's own family. 'My parents were German Jews who narrowly escaped Hitler through the heroic efforts of my great aunt and uncle,' explains Carter. 'That story was part of my childhood, as was the part about the same great-uncle inventing the game of Monopoly.'

While delving further into her family history, the author discovered that her relative actually did not invent the game of Monopoly, although he did figure out a way of making jigsaw puzzles out of cardboard rather than the more expensive wood they had been fashioned of at the time. Selling them for 15 cents each during the Depression, Morris Einson (Simon Phelps in the novel) became rich and was dubbed America's Puzzle King by the press of the time.

The novel itself focuses on three Jewish sisters coming of age during a period of social unrest. Flora Grossman and her older sister Seema leave Germany as young women to seek their fortunes in America. Flora meets Simon Phelps, a Lithuanian immigrant, and marries him. Simon builds a successful business based on the jigsaw puzzle and, although the couple is happy together, he never is at peace with the unknown fate of the family he left behind.

As life in Hitler's Germany becomes more and more difficult for Jews, Simon becomes obsessed with saving his wife's relatives. As the conditions worsen in Nazi Germany, Flora and Seema return to their native country to bring some of the remaining family members to New York.

The two women not only encounter burgeoning anti-Semitism but also discover that many German Jews refuse to comprehend what was happening. 'I wanted to show how people refuse to see things they don't want to see,' said Carter. But she emphasizes that her novel was also a celebration of those 'who ultimately confronted the horror and used their money, power and courage to get hundreds of people out of Germany and assure a future for the generations who came after.'

Set between 1892 and 1936 in New York and a small German town, The Puzzle King is a gripping historical novel that explores the ties of family, love, hope and sacrifice during an exceedingly challenging time period.

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