A young Jewish woman in New York City takes a life-changing job in this epistolary novel from Lawler (The Saints of Lost Things, 2014).
Ambitious 22-year-old Miriam Levenson is the Barnard College School of Journalism’s top graduate, but jobs for female reporters are scarce during the Great Depression. Miriam’s family, once prosperous brownstone residents, now occupy a squalid apartment and pawn their belongings to make rent. She eventually takes a position with the Federal Writers’ Project, a program that, among other things, pays writers to record oral histories. She moves to Shreveport, Louisiana, for her first assignment, shortly after reluctantly accepting a marriage proposal from Irving, a young businessman who could save her family from poverty. One Shreveport resident quickly seizes her interest: 94-year-old Bridget Fenerty. The book then alternates between Miriam’s diary entries and transcripts of her interview with the elderly woman. Like many Irish families fleeing famine, Bridget’s immigrated to New Orleans in the mid-1800s. Her father didn’t survive the voyage, and later, after her mother’s death, she was forced to take a full-time maid position at the age of 11. Bridget then kept house for families before, during, and after the Civil War. She lost loved ones to that conflict, as well as to accidents, illness, and addiction. In one heartbreaking sequence, her fleeing Confederate employers kidnap her young son and take him to Brazil. She befriends Solomon Rusk, a freed slave who helps in her pursuit of her child. As Miriam listens to Bridget’s story, she reckons with her own impending marriage as well as her growing attraction to Ellie, a local artist. Lawler’s historical research yields vivid, lived-in settings and characters, and he viscerally transmits what it really meant to be a young Irish maid in antebellum New Orleans. He also shows how Bridget’s life was punctuated by instances of grace and connection, as well as by moments of tragedy. Some chapters suffer from overwriting, however; Miriam’s diary entries seem true to life, effectively depicting the thoughts of a learning young writer, but they move the plot along very slowly, due to an abundance of description and introspection. Bridget’s interview is far more engaging and vivid as it depicts a tragedy-marred life led with persistent energy and optimism, although the story’s tension slacks during the book’s final third.
An overlong but often enjoyable historical tale about surviving hardship.