Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book Review: The Boston Girl

2. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant



My mom got me this book for Hanukkah, and we went to hear Anita Diamant talk about it this week. Diamant's comments really brought into focus what I thought about the book. She affirmed that her "MO" is to write about hidden women's stories-specifically, in this case, the stories of the women of Rockport Lodge. The book she said, began with the title "Rockport Lodge," though it came to be more about the protagonist Addie Baum, the type of grandmother Diamant says she wants to be, whose sharp wit and humor came in during later revisions of the book.

As an aspiring writer, I was interested in Diamant's hints about the writing process. She confirms what I teach my students when we read Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts," --it takes a lot of revision to get to the final product! For me, the final product was a compulsively easy read. I slipped into the skin of the character, a young Jewish woman growing up in Boston in the early twentieth century, and remained there the whole time.

Addie Baum tells the story of her life, from memory, to her granddaughter. The dialogue is believable as memory, but still clean and easy to understand. No tangle of clauses to get lost in, words are direct, and punchy: "Italians are as good as Jews when it comes to guilt." Growing up, Addie is friends with a group who call themselves the "Mixed Nuts," made up of the early twentieth century's best-known immigrants: Italians, Irish, and Jews. It's heartening, though perhaps unrealistic, how she maintains these friendships into adulthood.

Although this book is drastically different from The Red Tent in subject matter and style, it does spring from a similar agenda. This is a tale about one woman's life, and through her, about a whole swath of women who have not been especially recognized in history. In this respect, the book is equally successful. Rockport Lodge, a vacation house for working women, features prominently in Addie's story. This was apparently a real place, where women in Massachusetts gathered and organized and supported each other, especially younger women and girls. Through this network of sisterhood, Addie becomes a successful reporter and member of society. Though she eventually marries and breeds with a nice Jewish boy, her story, and those of her sister Betty and her eclectic friends, is an inspiring one.

I enjoyed The Boston Girl, but it also left me feeling...like I hadn't learned or thought about anything new. The Red Tent was so revolutionary, and read at such a pivotal time in my life, that perhaps my expectations of Anita Diamant are far too high. The subject matter of the book is also extremely familiar to me, in a way that's comforting, but also stagnant.The story of Jews coming to America from the old country is, of course, my family's story, and while my family first stayed in New York, I have my own personal history with Boston. I especially enjoyed it when Addie's family moves to Roxbury. I once lived there, and I remember the churches festooned with Stars of David, which is how I learned it used to be a Jewish neighborhood (no longer, but Brookline, also mentioned, still is). On the other hand, I don't really need to be reminded of how good I have it that my parents didn't force me to work in a factory and then marry a nice Jewish boy they picked out.

Ron Charles' review in the Washington Post clarifies my feelings about the book: "World War I, the flu of 1918, the Minnesota orphan train, Southern lynchings — they’re all blanched in the warm bath of Addie’s sentimental narrative." The book does deal with some big issues, just not in a way that especially piques. Still, Diamant's mission in writing the stories of unknown women is appealing to me, and Diamant herself and her fiction are very relatable to me in particular, and I'm sure others coming from a similar Jewish immigrant background.

Recommended to fans of Jewish and women's fiction; also recommended to hear Anita Diamant speak if you can, definitely a worthwhile experience!

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