The Boston Girl felt to me like an interesting mix of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and my grandmothers’ stories and the result was engaging, sometimes deeply moving, but not groundbreaking. That is, this novel feels a bit old fashioned even though the narrator, Addie Baum, herself talks frankly about women’s issues in the first half of the 20th century. The frame is that Addie Baum is being interviewed by her granddaughter, Ava, in 1985 and is asked to discuss how she became the woman she is today.
The answer is a story that is both very specific in its time, place, and community (hint: Boston) but which could also connect to so many stories by women who were born early in the 20th century. I thought often of my own grandmother as I read this—though on the surface, her Swedish family immigrating to a farm in southwestern Iowa seems worlds away from Addie’s parents coming from Russia and making their home in the North End of Boston. Yet I saw connections everywhere. Addie describes the challenges her Jewish Russian immigrant family faces both to make ends meet and to adapt to American culture. It doesn’t help the inevitable clash that in the 1910’s, American culture itself was beginning to stretch and grow. Addie is a strong-willed, smart young woman, who loves her family but has trouble connecting to her parents, especially her mother, who clearly and outspokenly favors Addie’s sister, Celia.
As Addie narrates the story of her life, she notes that she began to be her own person in high school when she started going to the Salem Street Settlement House where there was a library she could use and a reading club she could join. As her story and life continue, there are many women and programs that shape her sense of self and goals for her life and words/print are often involved. This isn’t a white-washed tale; Addie is upfront with her granddaughter about the dangers that women faced including the near-fatal results of a self-inflicted abortion by one of her friends and the devastating effects of the Spanish Influenza outbreak.
The limits of this novel are that it is an extended conversation so sometimes Addie speeds up or jumps over places where I’d love to know more and everything is told from the retrospective position. Still, that often works in the book’s favor because you can hear Addie’s voice in your head and see how the girl she was connects to the old woman she is now. I think one of my favorite bits in the novel is an aside where Addie tells her granddaughter that people who say things were better in the old days don’t know what they are talking about.
I finished this book and missed both my grandmothers fiercely—Ruth Christianson Peterson, who taught in one-room schoolhouses until she finally settled down and got married at the incredible (in the late 1930’s) age of 35 and who lived to be 103 and Miriam Adelson Staben, who raised a lot of eyebrows by not only marrying outside of her Jewish faith but marrying a young man from the “other side” of town. Though they were different in so many ways, they both were amazing women and they both made me the passionate reader and writer I am today. I think they would have both enjoyed this novel a lot and that’s as good a recommendation as any. #bookclubread #imissMorMorandGrammy