As part of WordPress.com’s showing love and support for Pride month, I’m very pleased to be reviewing a book which shows aspects of two of my specialist subjects from university days, the history of the Russian Empire and the experiences of working-class immigrants in the United States (New York City), through the lives of a same sex couple and a couple including one transgender partner. It covers a lot of themes, including the Kishinev pogrom, the fight for workers’ rights and the growth of trade unionism in New York City, and the US women’s suffrage movement. I don’t know how easy it would be to follow without any background knowledge of the history and culture (I’m fairly au fait with Bessarabia, but I’m weird!), and it doesn’t help that the author uses a very strange (“modern”, apparently) transliteration system which I doubt any of her readers will have seen before, but (odd transliteration aside) I found it generally pretty good, if rather rushed in parts. I do like a historical novel which assumes that the reader has the background knowledge and can just get stuck right in there! There are a lot of “suffering in the old country, coming to America” novels, but this one’s quite unusual.
The main character in the early part of the book was Gutke, born in Kamenka (in what’s now the disputed area of Transdnistria) in the mid- 1850s, after her mother Feygele was raped. Neither Gutke nor the reader ever knew who the attacker was. It was an isolated attack, not part of a pogrom, but the use of sexual violence against women as a means of persecuting a particular community, as happened during pogroms, or as a side-effect of war, as when soldiers were based in Kishinev during the Russo-Turkish War, came up several times during the part of the book set in Bessarabia. It also mentioned, briefly, that Gutke, by then a midwife, assisted women looking to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape. These are difficult and distressing subjects, but they’re relevant to every generation. Oh dear, that makes the book sound really miserable. It wasn’t exactly a fairytale, but it really wasn’t all miserable!
Feygele was shunned by her own community for having an illegitimate child, with a non-Jewish father, even though people knew that she’d been raped. So she moved to Kishinev to make a new start – and Gutke grew up there in a very female-centric world. Feygele got a job at the women’s ritual baths, and Gutke, when she was old enough, became a midwife. It was very much a world of sisterhood, and also a world in which several of the main people in her life were lesbians. And we were shown how she resented the way in which her world treated women: many of them were pushed into early marriages, and she wasn’t allowed to say the mourning prayers when her mother died – a man who wasn’t even a relative or close friend said them instead.
Gutke then met Dovid/Dovida, who became her partner. This should have been an interesting relationship, but unfortunately we didn’t see much of it, and we didn’t hear anything from Dovid/Dovida’s point of view. The reviews on Amazon had referred to a transgender character, but it was never clear exactly what the character’s situation was. They were a genetically female character with the given name as Dovida, living as a man called Dovid, but that seemed to be more because of the greater educational and career opportunities open to men than because they identified as male. It’s not even clear which name the character’s known by in private: Gutke seems to use both of them at different times. We know that the character has a male identity in public, but we don’t really see them at home, and there is this confusion over whether they identify as male or just prefer the life of a man because it offers things that the life of a woman doesn’t. All a bit vague, really. And, shortly after Gutke and Dovid/Dovida got together, the book moved on to another set of characters, led by a girl called Chava, the link being that Gutke was the midwife who’d delivered her.
Chava’s brothers were involved in the Bund and in Zionism, but, again, this wasn’t really developed properly. Instead, the story moved on to the Kishinev pogrom. Of the many pogroms, this is probably the best-known, and it had a huge impact on public opinion in the West. However, this was the first time I’d ever seen it described in a novel, rather than in a text book. Again, the book didn’t shy away from a difficult and distressing subject. Chava’s father was killed, and her mother raped and killed. Afterwards, it was decided that Chava should go to Odessa, and from there emigrate to America with some relatives, including a cousin of the same age, Rose.
This was the end of the section of the book set in the Russian Empire. Now, one thing that really winds me up with books set in the Russian Empire is when authors talk about “Russians” when writing about an area that isn’t actually Russian. This book did refer to the state as “Russia”, which I suppose is fair enough, but it did make it clear that Kishinev – and I wouldn’t expect anyone to write about “Chisinau” or “Moldova” when writing in English about a period prior to the 1990s – was in Bessarabia, and talked about Moldavians and the Romanian language. Gold star for that, because it really does annoy me when people get it wrong! But I could have done without the weird form of transliteration for Yiddish words. The author said herself, in the glossary, that she was used to the traditional spellings. Yes, and so is everybody else, and no-one will know this weird “modern” form, so why use it?!
So, goodbye Kishinev, goodbye Odessa, and hello New York City’s Lower East Side. Like most working-class immigrants, Chava and Rose and the rest of the family all too soon found that the streets weren’t paved with gold. Well, they hadn’t been expecting that, but nor had they been expecting to end up working long hours for low pay in sweatshops. It’s a common theme in books, but this one was unusual in that the two girls – only in their mid-teens – soon became involved with the labour movement.
They also became lovers. Was that possibly a bit of a cop-out by the author? Because they were part of the same family unit, they were living under the same roof, and sharing a bedroom anyway, so the issues that might otherwise have arisen, about them sharing a home and how people might have reacted to that, never arose. But the development of their relationship was very well-portrayed, whereas with Gutke and Dovid(a) it felt as if we missed most of it.
The political stuff was all a bit rushed. I can’t believe that anyone, especially a 17-year-old girl, would organise a strike almost immediately after arriving in a new country and starting a job. The timings were rather odd generally: without the references to historical events – the Russo-Turkish War, the assassination of Alexander II, etc – it would have been impossible to know how much time had passed, and it jumped from the 1880s to the 1900s very suddenly.
But the inclusion of the labour movement in a book about immigration was interesting. Although so many first and second generation immigrants have been involved in the struggle for workers’ rights, and women’s rights, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, the subject’s often avoided, and it does seem to be because people are nervous about writing anything that suggests minority groups are linked with anything that can be seen as anti-Establishment.
Many of the people mentioned in the American part of the book were real historical figures. Emma Goldman, a proponent of workers’ rights, women’s rights and gay rights, who was imprisoned as an anarchist. She’s well-known to historians, but you don’t often find her or people like her in novels. “Coming to America” (or Britain, or anywhere else) novels more often go for an angle of going from … well, not necessarily rags to riches, but usually working-class to middle-class. It doesn’t always happen like that, however hard people work. Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labour, even better-known than Emma Goldman but also rarely found in fiction. Lillian Wald, shown as a friend of Gutke and Dovid/a – who’d almost moved to New York –, the founder of American community nursing and an advocate for female suffrage and African-American rights. Rose Schneiderman, a member of the New York Women’s Trade Union League, who drew attention to dangerous workplace conditions following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, and helped to pass the New York state referendum of 1917 which gave women the right to vote. I’m not sure that two teenage immigrants working long hours would have met quite as many leading activists as they did, but never mind!
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It killed 146 people, mostly young women. The doors were locked to stop workers from taking unauthorised breaks, so they couldn’t get out. It did lead to legislation about workplace safety, but that wouldn’t have been much consolation to the families and friends of the dead. And, in the book, one of the dead was Rose. Most of those killed were recent immigrants, some from the Russian Empire, some from Italy. They’d gone to America for a better life. Many, like Rose, had gone there to escape the pogroms … and, as the book put it, and it’s hard to argue, they were effectively killed by American capitalism instead.
I suppose the book did end on an upbeat note, with Chava joining Rose Schneiderman on a tour of Ohio to try to gain support for women’s suffrage. And Gutke and Dovid/a presumably got to live happily ever after, and their support of Chava was very moving, as was the support that Feygele received from the women she met in Kishinev. But it was a sad end to the book. After the recent Coronation Street storyline in which Rana died on her wedding day – for which it was very unfair to criticise the scriptwriters, given that the actress had chosen to leave! – there was a lot of talk about how stories involving same sex romances tend to end in tragedy far more often than those involving opposite sex romances do. But maybe this was never going to be a happy ever after book, because it was always about how tough life can be, for Jews in the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and for immigrants in New York City in the early 20th century.
It was rather rushed, as I said, especially the part in America, with a lot of aspects of it not really being developed very well, but the subject matter was fascinating, and, whilst it’s well-known, often neglected in fiction. This isn’t the best book ever, but it’s worth a go.
A few other reviews with particular LGBT interest, as WordPress.com is marking Pride month:
A Terrible Splendor
A Very English Scandal