(Originally published in the Chapel Hill Herald, March 28, 2015)
It has been more than a decade since Anita Diamant burst on the scene with her now famous Red Tent (audio from Macmillan, 2002), a book that brought alive the ancient Biblical world of Jacob’s wives.
In intervening years, the former journalist has proved her understanding of the world of women and her dedication to research.
Diamant’s fiction evokes places, periods, and most importantly the emotional lives of her heroines
from Holocaust survivors held at a detention camp near Haifa
to a declining Massachusetts town in the early 19th century.
Her latest, The Boston Girl (Simon & Schuster Audio, 7 hours and 39 minutes) begins: “How did you get to be the woman you are today?”
This small question launches the large life story of Addie Baum who, at eighty-five, responds to her granddaughter’s query. Addie, the first American-born daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants, was born in Boston at the turn of the 20th century. That is the frame, but it’s the powerful range of emotions that give the story meaning and make the character seem real. Linda Lavin narrates and quickly evokes the context of an elder storyteller who has found an especially cozy spot and time to tell a beloved progeny her innermost feelings.
Lavin’s speech reflects Addie’s Jewish upbringing, Boston home and changing eras as she grows up. But it’s the heart-felt expression of Addie’s responses to life that create a sense of intimacy and give the heroine depth.
Take for example Addie’s first night school experience. When her business-oriented brother-in-law suggests she learn to use his new used typewriter “professionally,” she signs up for a class. The room is crowded with immigrants, all of whom learn to type “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The teacher, ram-rod rigid even to her tight bun, times her students and rings a bell in a series of typing tests.
Lavin’s expression of Diamant’s clipped speech evokes a room full of striking keys and a stringent teacher. The mood of that first night school changes as Addie goes to her next class, Shakespeare. Diamant’s sentences lengthen and Lavin’s tones grow dreamier, mirroring the experience which Addie finds “a little like listening to music.”
Yes, this is a small moment, but it sets a foundation for what Addie will become — a journalist dedicated to social reform who writes passionately. This fulfillment and its relief seem stronger because of all she has suffered before — Addie’s continual hurt and confusion at her mother’s unexplained cruelty to her, the comfort she finds in a teacher who believes in her, fear of discriminatory practices at work, terror at near rape, guilt at her sister’s death and pleasure of joining a band of merry women who become lifelong friends.
Author and narrator brought me so far into Addie’s painful story that I wished I could be the granddaughter and ask about Addie’s later life so as to rush from the harshness and hurry on to happier moments when Addie finds the love and success she deserves.