Tuesday, November 17, 2015
"The Boston Girl": A Sentimental Interview with a Grandma
When my grandmother was 85 years old, my husband and I interviewed her at Thanksgiving. We did it because we wanted her to be able to tell her stories and we wanted to have her voice recorded for when she was no longer with us. We asked questions about her family, her courtship with our grandfather, what it was like living through war time, what her holiday celebrations used to be like, what it was like living in inner-city Baltimore in a row home with 12 brothers and sisters, and what her thoughts were on life today.
My grandmother had nothing bad to say about anything. She never complained about sharing her home's one bathroom with 15 other people or about sharing her home's two bedroom's with all of her siblings. She kept coming back to the statement, "We were always together, and we always had something to do. We were happy." Her memories were sentimental and rosy, even the ones about the Great Depression and how little they had.
Maybe because I interviewed my grandmother all those years ago, I was particularly touched by Anita Diamant's most recent novel "The Boston Girl." I haven't read an Anita Diamant novel since I read "The Red Tent" (and loved it), so I was excited to read this book even after I read a snarky book review in the Washington Post which basically said that it had all the vibrancy of plastic flowers. I disagree with that review.
The book is set up as an 85 year old grandmother (Addie Baum) telling her granddaughter (Ava) about her life. Because of that premise, it is a rather G rated retelling of a life full of tragedy and triumph, and because of my similar experience with my grandmother, I was drawn in from the first page. Rather than getting too close to the tragedy or even the romance, Addie tells her granddaughter the facts and the fun stories about how her life unfolded in Boston. Growing up as the youngest daughter of Jewish immigrants, Addie lived in a dingy tenement building. Her mother was anything but kind choosing instead to criticize and bicker, complain and torment over being loving and comforting. Addie's father was a little bit better, but as Addie tells her granddaughter, this was the time before men were really expected to be engaged fathers especially with their daughters.
Addie's recalls her time in her Saturday Club where she forged life long friendships and connections that propelled her into her journalism career. She rebels (safely) from her parents' wishes for her to work in a sweatshop to help provide for the family, and instead pursues a more academic focused life of poetry recitations, meeting famous artists, finding work in journalism and becoming a writer.
There is friendship, romance, death, suffering, family turbulence and signs of the times discussed like child welfare laws and the treatment of women in the workplace. Because it is a grandmother talking to her granddaughter, there are plenty of aphorisms about life thrown about like "You should always be kind to people, Ava. You never know what sorrows they're carrying around."
What I liked best about this book is the nostalgic look back at a life well lived just like when I listened to my grandmother talk about how beautiful her life was. Overly sunny? Maybe. Not tragic or gruesome enough? Absolutely. Worth the read? I think so.
This will be my first Thanksgiving since my grandmother died, and I am looking forward to listening to her recorded voice with all of her memories of a life well lived.