“The Boston Girl” by Anita Diamant is a novel about place with an historical backdrop, tracing Boston through
the 20th century. The voice is that of 85-year-old Addie Baum in response to a question from her 22-year-old granddaughter Ava about how she became the person she is today.
Addie traces her fascinating life back to 1915 to a tiny one-room tenement
apartment in the North End of Boston.
The youngest of three daughters of Jewish Russian immigrants, she was the only one in her family to be born in America.
Addie’s older sisters had been put to work in sweatshops as soon as they arrived in America, at the ages of 10 and 12.
Addie’s harsh mother never assimilates; she keeps to her Old-World ways and speaks only Yiddish. Addie is a modern girl while her mother is firmly rooted to her past. Addie’s life shows how unprepared her parents were for America and its effects on their three daughters.
Two events have a remarkable effect on her life, she tells Ava: She attends Rockport Lodge, a summer camp near Boston, and she joins a Saturday library group, which opens up the whole world for her.
There are Irish, Italian and Jewish girls in the group, and they all have something in common: They want to explore possibilities and follow their dreams.
Addie is smart and loves learning, but girls in those days usually dropped out of school after eighth grade. Yet Addie takes typing and dictation classes and reads the newspaper daily. And she even signs up for a literature class on Shakespeare.
In this class, the teacher acts as though each of Addie’s questions deserves attention. Recalling this, Addie says, “If you treat your students like you respect them everyone learns a lot more, including the teacher.”
From her typing job, she lands a job as a writer with a Boston newspaper, eventually ending up with a column of her own.
Addie lives through the flu epidemic, the Depression and both World Wars. She discovers the freedom of wearing slacks and earning her own money. She is amazed when women are included in religious services and proud of Ava, who is studying to become a rabbi.
Through Addie’s eyes the reader understands what it was like growing from a little girl with endless curiosity and sharp intelligence into a woman watching the world change and finding her place within it.
This story shares the tensions and struggles that poverty creates through lack of education and cultural differences of new immigrants.
This is a novel about family ties and values, friendship and feminism in the early part of the last century. The author has thoroughly researched immigration, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression and other important events of the time.
But Addie is not as well etched as the reader might wish. She has no distinct persona that separates her from the voices of many other grandmothers.