The experience of immigrants in America, with their trials-by-fire of adaptation and adjustment, has inspired hundreds of remarkable books, from the stories in Ana Menendez’s beautiful In Cuba I was a German Shepherd to the hilarity of the novel Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. In fact, the immigrant story has arguably become our country’s signature literary genre.
One of the latest worthwhile novels to chronicle the hardships and the thrills of this journey is Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl. Popular with readers for her bestseller The Red Tent and other novels including Day After Night and The Last Days of Dogtown, Diamant has also written extensively on Jewish culture. In her latest work, she conjures up a blunt-spoken but endearing Jewish protagonist named Addie Baum, who comes of age and courageously makes her way in an often-hostile world.
The story opens with 85-year-old Addie recalling for her granddaughter, Ava, what life was like after Addie’s family fled anti-Semitic persecution in a Polish shtetl for a new home in Massachusetts. Back then, the North End of Boston “smelled of garbage and worse,” Addie says. “In my building to go to the bathroom, we had to walk down three flights from our apartment to the outhouses in back. Those were disgusting, believe me, but the stairways were what really scared me.” Detail by detail, Diamant reveals the filth and claustrophobic conditions of tenement life, but her heroine’s sense of humor and resilience make this a lively, not maudlin, narrative.
Despite her mother’s fierce objection, joining a book club at the settlement house transforms Addie’s life: novels, poems and the encouragement of teachers and mentors expose her to an existence beyond the cramped apartment and dirty streets. “How did I get to be the woman I am today?” Addie asks her granddaughter. “… In that library,” she responds, “in the reading club. That’s where I started to be my own person.”
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Diamant is careful to portray this young woman’s existence in a realistic manner: The Boston Girl is not a fairy tale. Addie’s parents argue constantly; money remains tight. One day, Addie discovers her sister Celia after she has slit her wrists: “She didn’t seem to be in pain. She smiled at me and watched me try to wrap her hands with the dishcloths as if it had nothing to do with her.” The writer reminds us that almost a century ago, people also grappled with depression, in those days generally undiagnosed and untreated.
Later on, members of Addie’s family are stricken with influenza. Diamant vividly recreates the physical and emotional trauma of that terrible epidemic: “The city sent out wagons to pick up the bodies but after a while the drivers were afraid to go inside anyplace where there was sickness, so people left corpses out on porches and even on the sidewalk.”
Despite her love of books and education, Addie’s rise in American society is hardly meteoric. Her first break comes when she is employed by her brother-in-law, Mr. Levine, as a secretary in his factory. Not only does she learn business skills but also escapes into a new apartment.
“Believe me,” Addie tells her granddaughter, “I wasn’t the least bit sorry to leave that miserable tenement, even if it was the only place I’d ever lived. The new apartment had indoor plumbing and electricity, and I got my own room with a door I could close.” Through her characters and the trials they endure, Diamant briskly sweeps away any sentimental nostalgia for the good old days.
Eventually, Addie’s job as a newspaper typist leads to work writing women’s columns. In a lesser writer’s hands, this might have turned into a cliché of fame and fortune. Instead, the author portrays the maddening and often humorous ups and downs of the profession. Addie’s boss treats his female employees “like we were servants or children.” As far as the writing assignments: “Sometimes that meant I had to write about the stupidest things you can imagine. The worst was ‘The Scientific Evidence That Fairies Exist.’ I am not making that up.”
After a difficult, failed romance, Addie meets a progressive young man named Aaron; eventually they marry. Her wedding isn’t the climax of the story, in the same way that being hired as a journalist is not an unequivocal triumph. The Boston Girl convincingly traces the story of a scrappy, intelligent immigrant, who does more than merely survive the 20th century; she embraces it all — tragedies, joys, and the humdrum — with unflagging passion.
Laura Albritton is the author of the guidebook “Miami for Families.”