At the turn of the 20th century, a young Lithuanian woman flees the Pale of Settlement in Lithuania to begin a new life in New York in Silbert’s (Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids, 2007) tragic, affecting Jewish-immigrant narrative.
Aware of the anti-Semitic mood on the streets of Glubokoye, Lithuania, Boshka’s father sacrifices his calling as a rabbi to sell pots and buckets—a means of accruing sufficient funds to secure his daughter’s passage to the safety of the New World. Eighteen-year-old Boshka finds herself on a train station platform in Vilna, waiting to board a train to Hamburg, where she’ll set sail for New York. As her family exchanges final goodbyes, they’re approached by a woman from their hometown who asks Boshka to carry an embroidered feather pillow to her son, Nathan, in New Rochelle, N.Y. Boshka agrees and finds comfort in the pillow throughout her arduous journey. In the Receiving Hall on Ellis Island, she’s given the name Elizabeth (later shortened to Bessie), her birth name being difficult for the American tongue. Bessie travels to the Upper West Side to stay with her sister Lillian but rejects the offer when she discovers that Lillian’s wealthy husband intends to employ her as a maid. She instead goes to live with family friends in Washington Heights, in the northern part of Manhattan. Eager to forge a profession for herself in the city, she first takes on work at a tough Lower East Side factory before working at a millinery store and at an outlet that sells paint and wallpaper. Her position, juxtaposed with the snobbery of high society, allows her a key viewpoint on the destitution of Manhattan’s immigrant slums. Romance finally enters Bessie’s life when she finds Nathan to deliver his mother’s pillow, yet this tale primarily remains a mournful look at the struggle of a resilient Jewish diaspora punctuated with personal tragedy and loss. These events—based on conversations the author had with her mother and grandmother—are presented with an agreeable fluidity and ease. Though engaging, the narrative thins somewhat toward the end, becoming more a chronology of tragic events that neglects to consider the ongoing emotional evolution of the principal characters. Despite this flaw, however, the author’s storytelling skills offer laid-back prose that will convince readers to care about Bessie from the start.
An intimate story of fortitude and finding independence.