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A tribute to latter-day pioneers

Looking Back, by Marie Jastrow. New York. W. W. Norton. 202 pp. $15.95. Marie Jastrow published her first book, ``A Time to Remember,'' seven years ago. She was then 82. ``Looking Back'' is a kind of sequel, a series of vignettes of some of the people and places she knew best in the turbulent years between the time of the Panic of 1907 and the end of the Great War, in 1918. Like the first book, this volume is at once a loving tribute to Jastrow's parents, Serbian immigrants, and a nostalgic salute to the fortitude of millions of Europeans who, like them, had forsaken their homelands and sailed off to ``America!'' that mythical place where dreams could become realities, and often did.

As in ``A Time to Remember,'' the writing is crisp and evocative. On winning a gift certificate to be spent at Wanamakers: ``Here we were, with $25 to buy our heart's desire in that high-class store where, as Papa said, only rich people shopped.'' On patriotic celebration: ``The floats made a tremendous impression on me. I still remember them. The different periods, going back three centuries, were represented. The Indians, then the Dutch, the English, among other European nations, the American Revolution, the Statue of Liberty commemorating the immigrant period that brought us to these shores.'' On becoming American: ``And when finally our New York boys embarked for France, singing `Over There! Over There!' the metamorphosis of the parents was complete as well.''

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The text is complemented by striking photographs of New Yorkers (including some of Jastrow's relatives), and of the city itself, taken in the early decades of this century. It is an uplifting vision of latter-day pioneers struggling to make it on the urban frontier.

Paradoxically but not surprisingly, Jastrow's portraiture is both believable and distorting as she looks backward through the prism of time. The elderly author does seem to remember her early days with vivid clarity. Even the details of conversations overheard eight decades ago appear to have a ring of verisimilitude. Still, one knows that, like so many other memoirists who found new homes and new lives in America, her reporting is highly selective and much of what she might have said is left out. But this in itself is significant.

Like many such volumes that have already been written in anticipation of the celebration of Liberty's centennial, ``Looking Back'' was never intended to be read as a scholarly tome. Nonetheless, in a variety of ways it is a contribution to a comprehension of our culture, its icons, and its imagery.

For this sociologist, books like Jastrow's are more than colorful evocations of days gone by. They are too frequently overlooked data banks of riches that are useful for helping us to understand the way we think we were -- or would have liked to have been.

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