I wasn’t expecting Anita Diamant to be able to match the heady heights she reached with The Red Tent, but nor was I expecting this, a first person account of a girl growing up in early 20th century Boston, to be quite so miserable. The narrator bizarrely remained relentlessly cheerful all the way through, but what a catalogue of doom and gloom! Her sister committed suicide. Two nephews and a close friend died in the Spanish flu epidemic. Her mother suffered a fatal stroke during the bar mitzvah of a third nephew, who was then killed in the Second World War. And another close friend nearly died following a backstreet abortion. The social history was interesting, especially the campaign for child labour laws, with which both she and her husband got involved, and her job as a social worker amongst women in need, but even that was all about suffering. I think the reader was meant to admire the fact that the narrator was still smiling at the end, as an elderly lady telling her story to her granddaughter, but it was like binge-watching EastEnders – misery upon misery!!
The social history was interesting, as I’ve said. The book didn’t go into much detail about anything, really, but it touched on the relationships between the different socio-economic and ethno-religious groups in Boston, the effects of the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, and the changing role of women. It also mentioned the struggle for protection for child workers – associated with the early 19th century in the UK, but still going on in the 1930s in the US – and the transportation of orphans and abandoned children to the mid-West, where some of them were badly treated … but that was only touched on, and it didn’t really fit into the story of Addie (the narrator)’s life.
There was also quite a bit about the clashes between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, partly as a generational clash thing with Addie’s dad being very suspicious of Reform synagogues and Addie’s granddaughter eventually becoming a Reform rabbi. And the whole thing was liberally sprinkled with Yiddish words, some of them certainly not in general use in English, which was fine if you understood them but must have been very confusing for readers who didn’t: there was no glossary to explain what they meant. Prohibition also got mentioned repeatedly, mainly in the context of people breaking it 🙂 .
The narrator evidently didn’t feel sorry for herself, and we were told at the end that everyone thought she was wonderful, so presumably we weren’t meant to feel sorry for her. It didn’t read like a misery memoir, because she was always cheerful and good-humoured, but she seemed to be dealt one blow after the other OK, very few people’s lives are easy, but Addie didn’t half seem to get more of her share of grief! It wasn’t even very well-written. If you want to read a book by Anita Diamant, stick to The Red Tent!