Whenever I’m writing a new novel, I like to immerse myself in the time period, researching not only non-fiction and memoir, but also fiction. When I read the blurb about Anita Diamant’s latest novel, The Boston Girl, about a young Jewish girl born to immigrants in early twentieth-century Boston, I immediately ordered the book.
The youngest of three sisters, Addie Baum yearns for an education and to become a true American. Her father spends most of his free time at the synagogue and her mother, who speaks primarily Yiddish, complains about life in this strange new country and mourns two boys she lost, one on the boat, another in their first years here. She constantly harps on Addie for wanting more. When Addie says maybe she doesn’t want to get married, Mameh says, “Are you so stupid? Marriage and children are a woman’s crown.”
Addie’s eldest sister Betty is banished from the house for taking a job in a shop so she doesn’t have to do factory work. Celia, the meek and frail middle sister, marries a widower with two small boys and soon becomes worn out from domestic life. Through a kind teacher Addie joins a library group and sneaks off to Rockport lodge during the summer. She befriends a group of girls who refer to themselves as the “mixed nuts,” for among them are Irish, Italian and Jewish, then as now, a nationality as much as a religion. Among these girls she learns compassion and friendship, sharing joy and pain.
Naïve about men, at a dance Addie becomes infatuated with a Coast Guard recruit and despite her friend Filomena’s warnings, leaves the dance with him and later is too embarrassed to admit her friend was right. What follows is a tender story of pre- and post-Depression era Boston, Addie’s quest to learn, to find love, to win her mother’s elusive approval, to eek out a career in journalism in a time when men expected women to fetch coffee for them. There’s a heartbreaking scene late in the book when Addie misunderstands a moment of tenderness with her mother.
The novel is told in flashback, with eighty-five year-old Addie telling her story to her granddaughter. This adds a layer of nostalgia as Addie reflects on how different things were then as now.