Anita Diamant's novel, The Boston Girl, seemed too easy, too conversational. I expected something deeper from the author of The Red Tent. And, I'll admit I was a little disappointed as I first read Addie Baum's story. In fact, I was halfway through the book when I realized this daughter of immigrants telling her story to her granddaughter, passing on the history of women in the 20th century, was telling my grandmother's story. No, my grandmother wasn't the daughter of Russian Jews in Boston. But, oh, how some of those stories brought back my German American Catholic grandmother, and the few stories she shared.
Addie Baum relates her memories to her granddaughter, graduating from Harvard in 1985. Addie was the youngest of three girls born to Russian Jews who came to Boston. And, Addie, born in 1900, was the only one born in this country. Addie's mother never assimilated, and fought her oldest daughter, Betty, who left home. The second daughter, Celia, was the beloved fragile one. And, Addie? She could never please her mother, but she escaped. She loved school; she loved books. And, after school she went to the Salem Street Settlement House, where she joined a reading club for other Jewish girls. When she answered her granddaughter's question about how she became the woman she was at eighty-five, she said, "It started in that library, in the reading club. That's where I started to be my own person."
Between the Settlement House, and another refuge for young women, the Rockport Lodge where girls could go to the seaside north of Boston during the summer, Addie Baum met other young women from other nationalities, some with more education. Addie, with a little more education than her sisters, was not forced to work in a sweatshop, and refused to marry young. Instead, with encouragement from her friends and her sisters, she tried to make a better life for herself.
The Boston Girl is one woman's story. Addie Baum found friends outside her Jewish community, encouragement to make a better life, a husband and working life she chose for herself. But, she was only able to do that with help from friends and older sisters, some of whom were still trapped in the traditional life. It's the story of a woman living through two world wars, a flu epidemic, changes in society. It's the story of a woman living a life her mother could never understand, and could never accept.
And, for so many of us in our fifties or sixties, this is the story of our grandmothers. Daughters of immigrants, they were often forced to leave school. And, they worked until they married. They sent their sons off to war, and, eventually, they were proud to see their children and grandchildren with educations and careers that they never had.
Anita Diamant's The Boston Girl is so much more than one woman's story. It's a personal grandmother to granddaughter conversation, one most of us didn't have with our own grandmothers. It's personal. Addie Baum, and women like her, made us the women we are today, giving us opportunities and support and love. This isn't such a simple story. It's the remarkable story of the forgotten women of the twentieth century, forgotten voices. And, I hope my sisters and my Smith cousins find the time to listen for Grandma's voice in this novel.
Anita Diamant's website is www.anitadiamant.com
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. Scribner. 2014. ISBN 9781439199350 (hardcover), 322p.
FTC Full Disclosure - Library Book