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C. Fraser Smith: Still feeling the tug of America

“Of course we couldn’t all come over on the Mayflower … but I got here as soon as I could.” — Anton Cermak

Judith Krummeck’s lovely meditation on wanderlust — and the “beguiling” United States — begins with that funny yet serious line.

Anton Cermak came to this country from Bohemia about 1900. He started unions, got himself elected mayor of Chicago and took on organized crime.

Mortally wounded in an assassination attempt on President Roosevelt, he told FDR: “I’m glad it was me and not you.”

Immigrants tend to love their new countries deeply.

Count Krummeck in the first rank of these “foreign patriots.”

The challenging, demanding inner voice that brought her to the U.S. in 1997 had to do with “the pull of possibility from America.” It was not entirely a rejection of her home country.

“A part of me still yearns for the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of South Africa,” she writes. But she is one of those who “seem to have a compulsion towards the arduous undertaking of picking themselves up and putting themselves down in another place.”

Some of us, she says, are sufficiently fulfilled by the life we were born into, even if that life is beset by odious politics, crime and a collapsing infrastructure.

Others not at all.

“It must be,” she says, “that there is some genetic impulse missing some descendants and snagging on others that manifests itself as a type of restlessness and a straining toward new possibilities.”

Possibilities pan out or not — but the life you left behind goes on without you. You know all this from the start, but you are powerless to act against it. You must move on. The inner voice does not relent.

Which does not mean the pain of pulling up stakes or the consequences of leaving are at all muted. She tells the story of her brother Peter’s death even as she is leaving for what she knows will be a final visit. She speaks to him via Skype in the last minutes of his life.

“We have been talking deeply all of our lives. I know he can hear me.”

He dies before she can get back.

Completed as part of a master of fine arts program at the University of Baltimore, Krummeck’s memoir is offered in a series of 12 essays. They fall easily into a compelling narrative. The second element of her studies had to do with art of making books.

And so she made a splendid one. She wrote the text. She chose the type face and designed the layout. She made the photographs, including the somewhat ethereal cover art.

And she is the publisher of the volume that a New York literary agent believes can be successfully published at greater length for a broader market.

Nonstop news about this country’s immigration dilemma could help to promote it.

The book is a tonic. So much anti-immigrant hostility in this country (not to mention governmental dysfunction) makes you wonder why anyone would want to come here. And yet there are legions.

We forget what a beacon we still are to people of many nations willing to face far more than the hassle of moving. We take for granted the rule of law, the Constitution, the artistic freedom — even, she says, the luxury of getting a FedEx package left on your doorstep.

She tells the story of her temporarily lost U.S. passport. When finally she found it, she had gotten a replacement. She was supposed to return the original.

“I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” she says. “It simply meant too much to me. … [It] was the encapsulation of all the emotions I felt about having the right to call myself an American.”

And yet, having reached that goal, she finds herself left with an aching duality: belonging and not belonging.

“When I die, what country will I think of as my own?”

Her book is a voyage, a brave navigation of the world and of the soul.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.