Fiction – print. Scribner, 2014. 320 pgs. Library copy.
Eighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her current affairs in 1985. The American-born daughter of poor, Jewish immigrants living in Boston’s North End, Addie’s desires to become an independent and educated woman are often spurned by her father and mother. The local Sunday club for young ladies offers Addie the opportunity to take classes in English and spend time with people her own age outside the city at Rockport Lodge, and the eventual marriage of a local shirtwaist factory owner to her older sister (and, later, her oldest sister) affords Addie a job and a means of economic escape.
One thought keep running through my head as I read this book: does any elderly person tell their life story in perfect chronological order without deviations? I once “interviewed” my grandfather for a class about when he learned about the Holocaust and, instead, we ended up a long discussion about how he met my grandmother, his time in Afghanistan, and, finally, his childhood living in the Dust Bowl. Not at all in order. Not at all an answer to my question. I doubt Addie’s perfect recollection and timeline would have bothered me as much as it did had the novel been written in third person, but the first person narrative perfect preservation of suspense as to who she marries and how she escapes her family’s tenement rung false with me.
The novel relies far too much on stereotypes and common archetypes – the aloof father who turns to religion after a painful loss, an immigrant mother who controls her daughters because she is afraid of all the differences between America and her homeland – to really stand out in my mind. Addie appears to chafe against the traditional expectations of her family longing for a more “American” experience, but even those problems are neatly wrapped up with the end of each chapter.
For a novel spanning several decades, I found it odd that major events in American and Boston history, including World War II and the Great Depression, are largely glossed over. Only the flu pandemic of 1918, which admittedly is often forgotten in historical fiction, leaves a lasting mark on this family, but even losses from that event barely linger in the family’s mind as the narrative quickly moves forward.
The reason why I stuck with the novel for so long was not because of a great affection for Addie, but because of my interest in her sister, Celia. The young woman appears to be mentally unstable yet her mother and father still marry her off to a man they don’t entirely approve of with tragic consequences.
Addie tries to link her sister’s suicide to her working as a child laborer in a sweatshop upon arrival in the United States and her eventual husband is a passionate advocate for child labor laws. But this connection is so subjective because Addie never works in a factory (other than as a secretary) so the reader never sees these conditions, never experiences the horrors she suspects her sister went through. There are other novels – the American Girls series for juvenile readers comes to mind – that do a far better job showing how awful child labor in the early twentieth century than this novel does.