This novel tells the story of a woman’s life, in the form of reminiscences shared with an adult grandchild. Addie Baum is born in Boston into a Jewish immigrant family that is having terrible difficulty settling in American. The year of her birth is given as 1900. My own grandmother, Anna S, was born in Boston, in 1891.
Addie Baum has two sisters. One jumps into American life wholeheartedly, angering her parents and almost losing contact with Addie. The other sister is frail and anxious – in modern terms, seriously traumatized and depressed. She eventually takes her own life. Addie, much the youngest, has the advantage of being sent to school and finding a “settlement house” where she is befriended and learns to cope with America and understand Boston. Nonetheless, her family forces her to drop out of school.
The best part of this book is its vivid description of Addie’s life from her early teens until she meets her husband. Immigrant life is terribly hard. Addie’s mother miscarries on the boat to America. Her parents fight all the time, her mother being convinced that everything was better in the “old country”. Poverty renders their lives miserable. Addie’s father takes refuge in religion, spending as much time as possible studying and praying in his synagogue.
Reading this book made me realize how little I know about my grandmother’s life. I was told she spoke only German until she started school at age 5. I don’t think she finished high school. I know she worked in a sweatshop – the evidence was always before our eyes. Two joints of her right forefinger were missing, severed by a stamping machine in a sweatshop. Family myth asserts that she started saving money as soon as humanly possible so her children could be more educated than she had been and avoid the fate of factory work. All three of them avoided the factory assembly lines, but only one, my mother, was educated beyond high school.
The author’s main “message” in this book is that the past was not BETTER. Often it was worse than the present.
This book is somehow lacking in narrative drive. Maybe this is what happens when an author has a message and a plot in mind and then writes a book around them. The alternative is the Stephen King approach – create your characters and turn them loose! Let them surprise you! (See blog post December 21, 2013.)
More quibbles… Once again I ask, “If a person or historical period is so interesting, why fictionalize it?” (See blog post December 6, 2013 about the novel Orphan Train.) I suspect that writing fiction is easier, and the author can slant the work according to his or her (contemporary) biases.
I wonder if Diament consulted too many experts while writing this book, leaving me feeling the lack of a distinct “voice”. I read her highly popular, earlier novel The Red Tent and had the same reaction to it – good, but somehow not as “great” as many people seemed to find it.
One (tangential) reason why I read this book was because the title reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s lively memoir (published in 1986), Boston Boy, subtitled growing up with jazz and other rebellious passions. No resemblance. Hentoff wrote voluminously on music and American politics. At age 89, he is still writing! Check him out!
Keep The Boston Girl in mind for a rainy afternoon or boring wait during travel. It will keep you occupied, but not make you miss your plane!