Book Review: Finding optimism in tragedy

Anita Diamant’s fictional heroine could be anyone’s Jewish grandmother.

Anita Diamant (photo credit: GRETJE FERGESON)
Anita Diamant
(photo credit: GRETJE FERGESON)
When 86-year-old Addie Baum begins to tell her 22-year-old granddaughter Ava her life story, we expect to hear much about Jewish suffering and constraint, but writer Anita Diamant’s fictional heroine is irrepressibly optimistic and forward thinking, almost unsinkable.
Addie was born in 1900 and lived with her two sisters and continually fighting Russian immigrant parents in a one-room tenement in Boston. Her parents spoke only Yiddish. Her father worked in a belt factory. Her parents fled to America after local thugs threatened her father’s life, but America always felt strange to them. Addie knew from the get-go that she wanted a better life for herself, but couldn’t begin to articulate what that even meant at the time, except that she was determined to figure it all out.
She wanted to fall in love, but her early and awkward experiences with men were frightening and unfulfilling. She loved to read and joined a readers’ group at her local library, enticed by her new friends’ interest in what she thought about the pressing issues of the day. She was smart, a good public speaker and excellent in school, but her father refused to let her go to high school. She was an attractive girl, but not as pretty as she wished she could be. She tried to please her parents, but felt toppled by her father’s distance and her mother’s withering criticism. Her older sister Betty had already fled the family home and was working in a retail store and living on her own. Her younger and exquisitely sensitive sister Celia was supportive, but too weak to offer her much help. She knew at a young age that she was on her own.
She recounts that she found a way, against all odds, to get a job at a newspaper, where she eventually wrote her own column. She would eventually pursue a career in social work after finally finding her Jewish prince at the ripe old age of 25.
Aaron Metsky was an attorney and child labor advocate, and he encouraged her to go back to school after giving birth to their two girls.
But there were terrible tragedies, too.
Celia slit her wrists with a kitchen knife and bled to death before anyone found her. Several of Addie’s older sister’s children died from the flu. Later on, a beloved nephew died in Italy, fighting the Nazis.
One of her best friends almost died from a back-alley abortion. And she continued to watch her father, who had always been terrifyingly elusive, slip more deeply into his own world of depression after the early death of one of his grandchildren. He was at peace only at shul with the other men, where he would pray and then sit with them for hours on end. Her mother continued to harass her.
But Addie refused to give up, and tried to overcome the obstacles before her with a toughness that never wavered.
In many ways, she is reminiscent of so many of our Jewish grandmothers, who revel in the ferocity of their spirit blissfully unaware of the obtuseness that accompanies it. Because Addie’s narrative is closed off, even to herself. There is no internal struggle or awareness of the contradictions that mar every life. There is no further examination, no sense of wonder, no cognizance of the selectivity of memory. And no room for vulnerability or doubt or confusion or fear, or the possibility of new interpretations. Addie presents us with testimony rather than inquiry, and this is where Diamant’s novel falters.
I would like to know Addie Baum – really know her. But Diamant won’t allow it. I want to know what Addie’s marriage was really like, rather than listening to banal anecdotes about her husband’s snoring. I would love to listen to her think about her mother’s life and the deprivations she suffered and how it ultimately poisoned what the two of them shared. I would prefer to hear her mourn for the losses she herself has personally suffered, rather than listen to her well-worn narrative of triumph, which has sucked itself dry of any genuine introspection.
Diamant paints her as a mildly rebellious, bright Jewish woman who wanted a better life. But that isn’t enough. She is more than that, and the author shies away from exploring the depths of her own creation. We get only the outline.
This is puzzling, because the 63-yearold Diamant, in her earlier works, proved herself to be a highly imaginative writer.
Her best-selling novel The Red Tent focused on giving a voice to Dinah, the only surviving daughter of Leah and Jacob in the biblical tale. That book resonated with readers all over the world who felt troubled by women’s silence in biblical history. In her novel Day After Night, she imagined the inner lives of four women who survived the Holocaust and were awaiting an uncertain future in a British internment camp near Haifa in 1945. She has said in interviews that she is drawn to the invisibility that dominates so many women’s lives, claiming that “it was [Modernist writer Virginia] Woolf who first challenged me to wonder about the under-told stories of women, long marginalized in literature.... In my own writing, it became a conscious choice to make visible those people who were, historically, left out.”
She has also always been fascinated by how women survive unspeakable suffering, claiming, “It’s the struggle to continue after great loss, great pain and great suffering. How do you cope with those memories? Where do you put them? How do you carry them with you into the future? How much do you have to forget in order to live, to continue?” Perhaps that is what she was trying to do with Addie Baum: show us how someone trounces trauma so it can’t hurt them anymore – how someone can take charge of their own life, even their own life story.
If only it were that easy.