By Madeline Rosenberg
Tamara Silberman has been hiking Westchester County’s trails for the past 25 years. But these same parks look different now. Swamps are drying up, Silberman has noticed, and water levels in streams and ponds are receding.
These environmental changes inspired Silberman’s recently released novel, “The Farmer from Penzance,” informed by the inequitable access to food and natural resources.
Writing out of concern for the environment and its disparate impact on different communities, ‘Penzance’ follows a teenage protagonist who flees his family’s Hudson Valley organic farm for New York City, discovering relatives who live in abundance.
“The world is so different even for people in the same family,” said Silberman, a Mount Kisco resident who co-owns Silver Spoon Catering. “The world is very different for each of the characters, and they’re all related.”
The coming-of-age novel develops around Simon, who begins the narrative paddling down the Hudson River in a canoe until he reaches Manhattan. Leaving behind his family’s four-acre farm, he encounters his “food mogul” uncle, who owns a fruitful hydroponic farm, while Simon’s father lives with a Hasidic family in Brooklyn.
“He has to figure out who he is, in terms of food, religious background, who his parents are, what his family actually represents,” Silberman said. “He grew up with one sort of ideal, and it was unsustainable in real life.”
Silberman’s background in food, as well as her years teaching across Westchester and New York City, impacted her book. She teaches Hebrew school and previously worked as a librarian. She has distributed food to Mount Kisco residents at a local food pantry and has catered Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties – experiences that have highlighted food inequalities, which the coronavirus pandemic has only deepened, Silberman said.
“We’re stratified even by the foods we eat and how we acquire them, whether we get them in the supermarket or the food pantry or a restaurant,” Silberman said. “When you talk to individual people, whether you’re tutoring them or helping them collect food off a food pantry shelf, you get to see their individual needs and wants.”
Even as Silberman sends her characters into directions that sometimes faintly resemble reality, the author said her novel is “not plain fiction,” but centered around food insecurity and drought.
“We get different food depending on how much money we make, and all kinds of people are being disaffected and disoriented,” Silberman said, “so [the book] is closer to the now that we’re actually living in.”
“The Farmer from Penzance” is available on Amazon Kindle, along with her other novels, “The Art Dealer of Greenwich” and “Found Lives: Finding Love in the Monastery.” Silberman also wrote the illustrated children’s book “The Tailor and the Dress.”