Notes from the Lampert Library
March is Women’s History Month, celebrating the accomplishments of outstanding women. Last week’s column highlighted influential women such as Prime Minister Golda Meir and strike leader Clara Lemlich.
Fiction, too, has long provided models of admirable women in challenging situations. So this week’s column focuses on a new fictional work celebrating a feisty, independent woman Addie Baum, the protagonist of Anita Diamant’s new novel The Boston Girl.
Born in 1900, Addie is the American born third daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. The family’s story reads like that of thousands of others who lived with a foot in two worlds, the United States with its opportunities and the “old country” with its fears and obstacles.
Addie, as the only American born child, looked to the future. She loved school and it was through education that she made her mark, but it wasn’t easy. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, butting heads with her mother, with a father who fled the house to study at the synagogue, overshadowed by both her “good” sister and by her rebellious one, Addie more or less raised herself.
Through Addie the reader experiences most of the social movements and events of the 20th century. She and her contemporaries are involved in the fight for women’s suffrage, the rise of educational programs for wom-en, efforts to improve the lives of poor women through the settlement houses and literary clubs, the im-portance of the public library, the early sexual revolution, World War I and more. The reader sees the 20th century through its impact on one woman. One might even say that the events overpower the book and may question how one woman could be involved with every landmark event of the era. Remember, this is fiction where anything is possible.
The book’s framework is a conversation with Addie’s granddaughter Ava. On Addie’s 85th birthday Ava has asked her grandmother to explain how she became the woman that she is today. The novel successfully does that. We see Addie taking advantage of every experience and using all the contacts and opportunities that come her way. She goes from a rebellious child to a self-confident professional woman and then to a leading professor at Boston University. She’s helped along the way by her sister, her husband, various bosses and friends, not unlike many of us. And sometimes it’s just luck that helps Addie fulfill her potential.
In a bit of a surprise ending, the reader finds out at the very end of the book that Ava herself is an unorthodox and forward thinking woman who is going to be studying for the rabbinate.
The local color and historical details are accurate and fascinating. Did you know that there was a female only Law school in Boston? Named after Portia in The Merchant of Venice, its mission was to give a legal education to women when most law schools did not accept women. Did you know that Simmons College, founded to give women a practical higher education, was the first college to offer a social work program?
While Addie came up through Boston’s slums, her story is the story of many women from immigrant families who have become successful through their wits and inner strength. Readers may even see bits of their own mothers, sisters, aunts or grandmothers in Addie’s struggle to fulfill her potential.
While The Boston Girl may not win awards, it successfully portrays a time, a place and a person.
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