Are the 1910s–1930s making a comeback? See this week's post, “The Fog of War.”
I chose this book from NetGalley because I've read a couple of Anita Diamant’s books and I really enjoyed them. I like that after reading them, I feel satisfied that I’ve read a good story and also, somehow, smarter. She has a gift for telling complicated stories in an elegant, simple manner, and the story of Addie Baum is no different. Addie tells her story to her granddaughter with the benefit of years and hindsight, and Diamant brings the book up-to-date with nods to current trends in contrast to Addie’s experience.
This is the story of a young woman living through periods of great change in women’s roles, and Diamant gives us a capable heroine to challenge the status quo. For me, something about the telling reminded me of a more grown-up version of the Betsy-Tacy stories my daughters and I read aloud together a couple of years ago. This is meant as a compliment, as they were a highlight in our reading, and Betsy was a well-loved character. We read all of those stories as they spanned her lifetime, just as Addie’s story spans almost a century, and the many changes those times brought. As I’ve come to understand, reading a book by Anita Diamant is always time well spent.
Grandmother Addie Baum tells her compelling story to her grandchild, Ada, who is her namesake, though that was not widely known, at first, for reasons the reader will learn. The entire tale plays out as Addie reveals her deepest secrets with humor, honesty and nostalgia. She was born in 1900. The book ends in 1985. She has come a long way. My book was read by Linda Lavin who did a superb job with her portrayal. I could see her on the stage addressing the audience as if each and everyone was Ada.
Boston Girl presents a wonderfully accurate description of Jewish life, at the turn of the century, with an overbearing mother who is steeped in the traditions and superstitions of the times. The father often appeared gentler, but he truly ruled the roost. His home was his castle, and he had his throne. In my home, a chair was dedicated specifically for my dad. He was the breadwinner. No one would sit his chair. It belonged to him wherever it was, in the living room, the dining room, wherever. It was sacrosanct. However, both parents demanded unquestioned respect and obedience from their offspring.
When Addie was about 16, she came into her own and began to experience life. She had been extremely sheltered, like the Jewish girls of those times, and life was a bit of a surprise and sometimes a disappointment to her, as she learned more about how people interacted with each other and what was expected of her in the general public. Oh, how the times were different. Pre-marital sex was forbidden, dorms were single sex, curfews were in effect, and alcohol was prohibited, although speakeasies proliferated. Abortion was a crime; the girls who got caught were ridiculed, shamed and exiled. Pregnant teachers had to stop working, there were strict dress requirements in school and the workplace, fraternizing with anyone outside your culture, color, religion, and social status, was anathema. As she relates her little vignettes, Addie so clearly describes life then, that the reader finds he/she is there with her. The custom of eating Chinese food on Sunday or keeping a kosher home, mothers as masters of Jewish guilt and arranged marriages, were all a part of life in those days. Addie takes us through suffrage and the women’s rights movement, the war years, prohibition, the depression and the civil rights marches. She was a pioneer; she lived alone at a time when it was frowned upon. She was independent when independence was a fault in a woman. She was smart when women were supposed to be docile and unschooled. Addie was the forerunner of the modern woman. She was willing to step out there and take some risks.
The culture of the immigrant Jews, right down to their customs, prejudices, complaints, joys, sacrifices and ultimately, their appreciation for the opportunity afforded them in America, is presented clearly with Addie’s confession. The book will be very evocative for those of us who can identify with Addie’s past as she describes her escapades and the things that brought her both happiness and sorrow. The moral standards of the day were so different, the parental behavior and acceptable child’s behavior were polar opposites of the customs today. Permissiveness was a non-issue, although there will always be children who push the envelope and blaze the trail, regardless of the times.
Addie’s background was similar to my mother-in-law’s, right down to the horse and wagon, right down to the spiritual beliefs. My own mother often had the same backward notions as Addie’s mother, although my mother and my mother-in-law were younger and represented the next generation. Times changed slowly. Jewish women of the time may have seemed hard in their behavior toward their daughters, but actually, most were trying to protect them from a society that gave them few rights. They were the homemakers. Defiance was usually not a welcome option. Women were not educated; they were merely supposed to be compliant; they were, after all, the weaker sex at that time. The men were the earners. Religiously, they were ruled by their dogma and the male had the final say in all matters.
In addition to the culture, the history and development of the Jewish communities around Boston in places like Roxbury and Brookline, she touches on the history of some of Boston’s famous institutions like the launch of the swan boats in the public garden. Even the Red Sox were revered in the book. She took part in the development of social services for those less privileged. She witnessed the movement for equality among races and religions, children, women and men. She remembered the orphan trains in Minnesota, the flu epidemics and the loss of lives from war and disease from which there was no relief. Medicine had not advanced far enough to help those afflicted. She analyzed and exposed the development of the liberal policies in government that many Jewish people still support.
Addie lived through almost a century of massive change by the time the book ends, with technological advances like computers, antibiotics and jet planes, inventions that she could never have dreamed of as a young girl. Essentially, Addie was a self-made woman who remade herself whenever the opportunity or necessity presented itself, eventually obtaining an education and a career in many places. She was hard-working and ethical and succeeded because of her sense of responsibility and integrity. She took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves to her. She had a fantastic spirit, was a good friend, always offered a helping hand, and always looked at the bright side of things, moving forward, embracing life, even at the end, at 85, vowing to continue on. The reader would probably like to know someone like Addie, I know I would.