— Lee Fishman found herself impressed with the courage of immigrants trying to build lives here. So she decided to write a book about it.
Rija Malacovik waited for her husband, Josef, outside a Bustleton Avenue restaurant. He didn’t expect her to be outside. In fact, Rija was hoping he wouldn’t spot her at all. Her intention was to follow him. Josef had kidnapped their little girl, and Rija and a friend aimed to tail him to wherever it was he was hiding her.
Rija (pronounced REE a) and Josef Malacovik are characters in Lee Fishman’s first novel, Edge of a Dream, the tale of a Bosnian immigrant family’s struggle to build a new life in Philadelphia.
The novel’s action takes place in Center City, Port Richmond and the Northeast, Fishman said May 2 during a break at her job in the Central Library, 19th and Vine streets. But the book also gives readers a look at a part of their own city that they might not know.
It’s a Philadelphia that has become the new home of many people who were born overseas. The Malacoviks and their story were inspired by the immigrants Fishman met on the job. Now the Free Library’s assistant chief of central public services, Fishman worked many years helping immigrants get ready for job interviews. The strength, courage and smarts of the people she met impressed her.
“If I were in their place, I thought, ‘How would I feel?’ I would be overwhelmed,” she said as she sat in her old work station last week. “They weren’t.”
Rija, Josef, their child and her mother are survivors.
LIVING THROUGH A WAR ZONE
Bosnians of Croatian ancestry, they lived through 44 months of artillery shelling of their hometown of Sarajevo during the war that raged after Yugoslavia split apart. Many city residents fled to destinations all over Europe, but Rija and her family came to the United States, where they wanted their piece of the American dream.
The novel’s title is drawn from the idea of that quest, Fishman said.
“It’s about life around the edges of the American dream, which is not all we think it is,” she said. “People who come here are surprised by how challenging it can be.”
Beyond that, Josef and Rija don’t have the same dream. She wants a safe, stable family life. He wants fast money. They settle in Port Richmond, where their little girl attends the mythical St. Casimir’s School. Josef isn’t home much. He is off working a construction job in Atlantic City, and from there he disappears for a while.
Left to make her own way, Rija takes a job cleaning offices in Center City. To say she gets taken advantage of would be softening the story. Her pay is lousy and she receives no benefits. The first co-worker she meets has no idea where Bosnia is or that there was a horrific war there not long ago.
“I do remember something on the news, but I didn’t understand it,” Rija’s co-worker, Carlene, said. “I’m trying to picture where Bosnia is.”
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Fishman didn’t pick Port Richmond as her Bosnian characters’ new home because she lives there herself. She doesn’t. She lives in Center City and grew up in Bucks County. But over the years, she got to know Port Richmond, and she drew some inspiration from it.
“I got fascinated with the neighborhood,” Fishman said. “I learned that a lot of newcomers live there. It hit me as a good, solid Philadelphia neighborhood.”
One of the book’s characters is Mr. Gracek, a Port Richmond entrepreneur and Rija’s landlord. He’s smart and he knows all the angles, Fishman said, so Rija sees him as a role model.
Port Richmond, however, is Rija’s home, not Josef’s. He is off on his own, Fishman said. She tells Josef’s story and Rija’s in alternate chapters for most of the book until “things start to get a little tricky,” Fishman said.
Josef does come back for a while, but he is easily drawn into easy-money schemes, so he is soon gone, taking the couple’s 6-year-old daughter with him.
Determined to find her daughter, Rija first turns to police for help, but she is told her husband has every right to take his child. She then recruits a friend, and the two of them find out that Josef frequents a Bustleton Avenue restaurant. It’s there that they wait to put eyes on him; they follow him across the Betsy Ross Bridge to New Jersey.
Fishman sees Rija as a tough-minded 20-something wife and mother who has survived a war of ethnic cleansing.
“She’s unrelenting in defense of her family and not above bargaining in blood to save them,” Fishman said.
Josef, on the other hand, is charming but capricious. He’s a wannabe wheeler-dealer who sees his vision of American success collapse.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Lee Fishman, 57, was brought up in Bucks County and attended Neshaminy High School before pursuing her English degree at Temple University. She moved to the city after college and has been a Philadelphia resident ever since. She and her husband, Benson, live near the Central Library. They have two grown children.
Fishman has been with the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1995, working at the Workplace Career Center.
“One of the things I did there was to initiate and produce the first ‘Entry Level Job Fair,’” she said.
The fair sought to help people move into the workforce; the 10th annual event was held last month.
Besides being inspired by the stories of the immigrants she met while working at the library, Fishman found ideas in newspaper stories, snippets of overheard conversations and “tiny bits and pieces of people’s lives.”
The author is working on her second book, Medium’s Guild, which also is set in Philadelphia.
“I love Philadelphia,” Fishman said. “It’s a great and livable city brimming with art, culture, great people, fantastic food and fun.” ••
“Edge of a Dream” is published by the TransMedia Publishing Group and is available as an e-book at Amazon.com. It is available as a trade paperback at Amazon, and also at Joseph Fox Books, 1724 Sansom St.