Monday, June 13, 2016

The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant
Scribner    2014
336 p.     Historical Fiction

If my grandma were to sit down and tell her life story, The Boston Girl  by Anita Diamant would be her story. It would actually be the story of many of the women who lived their lives in the early years of the 20th century.

Addie Baum is the Boston born and bred daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. She is the only child to be born in the United States. Addie tells her story to answer her granddaughter's question about how she got to be the woman she is today. Told in oral history form by Addie as she celebrates her 85th birthday, it covers the years of her life from age 15 until she starts a career and gets married—1915-1927. 

Addie is feisty, and her story tells much of the story of American women as they began to gain jobs, independence, voting rights and education. There is joy and sadness; interesting characters and challenging experiences—the stuff of life. Mentored by independent career women at a community center,  Addie is offered the opportunity to join the Saturday Club, where young women are challenged to be more than shop girls and housewives. Here she meets the women who become her lifetime friends. The pivotal experience in Addie's life is the opportunity she is given to go to Rockport Lodge, a vacation spot for young working women. Young women from many immigrant families (Italian, Irish, and Jewish) mingled and learned together. When you look up Rockport Lodge, you find that it functioned in this same capacity until the 1990s.

One of the significant aspects of the novel is its intimacy. The reader relates to Addie just like you would relate to your own Grandma, if you asked her a question about her upbringing. The life changing event in one of my grandma's lives was the loss of two of her children within a short time of each other about 1920. The life changing event for my other grandmother was the chance to go to college in 1908—a very unusual event in those days. Those two women were strong and fearless and their influence on me was profound. Addie seems to have the same profound influence on her granddaughters.

Reviewers are divided about The Boston Girl. One felt that it would be appropriate as a young adult novel for girls to help them know where they came from. The reviewer in the LA Times says, "I'm of two minds about The Boston Girl. On the one hand, it's a vivid, affectionate portrait of American womanhood. On the other, it feels at times a bit like chicken soup." The reviewer in the Washington Post was very critical. Her comment was: "At this late date, the demands of originality in the immigrant story, both in plot and style, are high — higher, alas, than this pleasant, undemanding novel is willing to reach."

Almost everyone agreed that The Boston Girl did not come close to the compelling nature of Diamant's first novel, The Red Tent. I found it to be delightful and totally vapid, albeit filled with touching scenes and wry moments of humor. For example, Addie's fiancé goes to work for a while in Minnesota and in his letters to her he complains about the mosquitoes that "were the size of bumblebees." I know those mosquitoes well. 

All in all, The Boston Girl was a nice read, gentle and non-threatening. Easily read, easily forgotten. It just needs to be remembered until book club on Thursday night.


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