Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Beyond FICTION: THE LITTLE BRIDE by Anna Solomon

Author Anna Solomon says she was surprised to learn her first work of historical fiction, THE LITTLE BRIDE, would be marketed to women readers and Jewish readers as well as to fans of historical fiction. I was surprised to realize her book’s focus on Jewish pioneer women who came to live and toil in the American West—many as mail-order brides—introduced me to yet another dimension of the discrimination and dogged determination to survive so many Americans have endured during our country’s relatively short history.

In a recent talk and book signing at the Boulder Jewish Community Center, Anna said one of the reasons she was drawn to the topic of Jewish pioneers was the connection she felt to what she imagined they must have endured. A native of Gloucester, MA, a fishing community comprised “mainly of Irish and Italian Catholics” with a very small Jewish community, Anna says she was one of only two Jewish students in her school and was very self-conscious about the holidays she was missing and her curly hair.

Though she felt “connected to the landscape” via her familiarity with fishing, hunting for mussels in her small motorboat, sailing, and skiing while growing up, she later realized she had a “second-generation complex” as she “wanted to feel something innately New England,” something she “would never achieve as a Jew.”

“Pioneer Jews were farmers where there were few other Jews,” she explains, adding that when she began to learn about them she understood “they’d experienced an exaggerated version of what I’ve gone through” living as a Jew in New England.

Stories Untold

Anna confesses she first learned about Jewish pioneers in the U.S. when she Googled her name (before Google Alerts made this unnecessary, she jokes) and discovered a website called Stories Untold. The site features Jewish pioneer women, one of whom was named, serendipitously enough, Anna Solomon. That discovery led Anna to learn about mail-order brides, especially one named Rachel Calof, also featured prominently on the Stories Untold website. Rachel not only was a mail-order bride, but she wrote a memoir about her time as one living in North Dakota in the 1890s.

Her memoir, discovered by her daughter in the 1980s and translated from Yiddish in the 1990s, was published as RACHEL CALOF’S STORY by Indiana University Press in 2009. This year, the same year in which THE LITTLE BRIDE was published, a one-woman play called RACHEL CALOF: A MEMOIR WITH MUSIC was produced in New York.

History + Fiction = Historical Fiction

Anna notes a wide range of opinions exist on how historical fiction ought to be written, on how much of a historical novel should be made up versus how much its author should stick with historical details. Anna’s own concerns about misrepresenting historical details led her to consult not only online and printed resources but professionals on everything from antique farm equipment to the type of grass settlers in South Dakota might have struggled to keep from taking over their land. “I am concerned with getting details right,” she says.

Another special challenge inherent in writing about Jewish pioneers from the late nineteenth century involved translations from Yiddish. “Many words in Yiddish have multiple definitions or spellings,” Anna explains, adding that ultimately it’s impossible to make everyone happy on that front. Finding documented evidence about mail-order brides was also challenging as so many of the transactions were not publicized. Citing the resemblance of the practice to the Jewish matchmaking tradition, Anna says the process was not as scandalous back then as current readers might think. Still, much of it was conducted via word of mouth and scams that cost many men their money—and led many women into slavery as prostitutes—were widespread.

Any such lack of documented details didn’t deter Anna, who says a historical fiction author “fills in the gap between what is known and what is lived.” The first scene of THE LITTLE BRIDE deals with “The Look,” a humiliating examination Rachel Calof mentioned almost as an aside since it was a common aspect of becoming a mail-order bride. Anna placed her main character, Minna, in a scene that involved such an exam, adding the emotion she imagined countless women like Rachel must have experienced at such low points in their lives.

From there, Anna continued to weave the story of her main character, Minna, an Eastern European teen in the 1880s when she was orphaned and sent to Odessa to work. Minna eventually applies to be a mail-order bride in order to escape escalating violence against Jews in the region. She’s grown up with dueling myths about her mother’s absence, myths that have greatly impacted her childhood. These myths continue to impact her development as a woman and eventual wife and mother when she lands in South Dakota, far from the coastal city she’d imagined she’d live in when she was sent to the U.S. Her husband, a much older Orthodox Jew who’s still learning how to farm with his two sons, is not exactly what she’d expected, either.

The Eternal People

Am Olam, Yiddish for Eternal People, was a name assigned to a theory of sorts among some late nineteenth-century Jewish leaders that asserted discrimination of Jews would lessen if more Jews pursued “productive” lines of work such as farming. Such an effort would result in Jews who were more robust and self-sufficient flourishing on farms far from overcrowded settlements. Am Olam advocates considered The New World a sort of Eden with its promise of free land due to the Homestead Act, and were anxious to try out their experiment there.

Wealthy established Jews in the U.S., many of whom hailed from Germany, had practical reasons to support such efforts. They did much to help newly immigrated Jews from Eastern Europe, whom they considered a blight of sorts on the upscale public image they’d labored for years to establish. A very likeable character, Jacob, states in THE LITTLE BRIDE that the “rich old Jews” who’d helped immigrant families like his at first were very kind, until thousands of immigrants arrived in need of help…and education. Of special concern was how to teach the immigrants to “dress properly, clip their beards to a hygienic length, and walk without their feet flopping and their heads in the sky, and talk without their hands flailing, and tell their women to stop looking, every one, like a widow.”

Some were sent to colonies in places as far-fetched as the Dakotas, the Pacific Northwest, or the wilds of Louisiana, though most did not have the skills they needed to select ideal farm land, or to farm it. So Am Olam proved to be a relatively short-lived experiment, but it did have a widespread impact on the cities that eventually grew in these regions. As Anna puts it, the Jews who’d been sent to these areas and whose descendants stayed brought to these eventual cities a new perspective due to their direct ties to the land. Ultimately, they “challenged beliefs about what Jewish Americans can be.”

Questions of Faith and Identity

THE LITTLE BRIDE also explores the challenges faced by Jewish pioneers whose livelihood might have contradicted the demands of their Orthodox faith, or whose obligations to that faith was challenged by a spouse who held different beliefs. The question of whether Jews in the United States consider themselves Jewish Americans or American Jews continues to be a factor in “how we identify ourselves and live out this identity in a culture that isn’t largely Jewish,” Anna states.

For a young mail-order bride, such issues were jumbled into a heap of questions about identity as she struggled to overcome often brutal conditions, to be a pioneer and wife and mother despite significant language and cultural barriers, to come to terms with the fact she would never see her home again. To become a whole new person and not only survive, but prosper while she was at it.

These are just some of the challenges faced by Minna in THE LITTLE BRIDE. Anna Solomon’s storytelling skills and obvious love for her subject matter bring these challenges—and Minna—to life among a backdrop of fascinating, and widely unknown, details from American history. Mazel Tov on a beautiful book, Anna!