Anita Diamant -June 2015
by: Caroline Stanton
“In ‘The Red Tent,’ Dinah speaks to her audience from the grave. She doesn’t even know if anyone is listening. But Addie’s story has been solicited from her audience. There is enormous progress in terms of women’s stories being collected, respected and listened to instead of lost,” Diamant said.
In “The Boston Girl,” published in December and one of the books featured in the upcoming Nantucket Book Festival, readers get to sit in on Addie Baum’s retelling of her life as a first-generation American growing up in Boston at the turn of the century to her granddaughter, Ava.
Diamant describes her approach to this personal narrative as “history from eye level.”
“This story discusses the changes for women not in a pontificating way or on high, but telling the story from the ground,” Diamant said.
From her research into various aspects of the lives of young women in Boston during the first half of the 20th century – the Saturday Evening Girls club, settlement houses, the famous Paul Revere pottery and Rockport Lodge – Diamant fashioned Addie, a curious young woman with lots of pluck.
“Boston is an old city with great resources,” Diamant said.
Having started her career as a journalist at The Boston Phoenix, Diamant really enjoyed the research process.
Addie is a first-generation American, born to Jewish Russian immigrants, and living in the North End. Addie begins her story with a visual description of her neighborhood, a stark contrast to the area today.
“The neighborhood smelled of garbage and worse. In my building, to go to the bathroom, we had to walk down three flights from our apartment to the outhouses in the back. Those were disgusting...”
But for Diamant, this story was not conceived in the muck-filled streets of Boston’s immigrant neighborhoods, but the fresh air and sea breezes at Rockport Lodge.
In 1906 the Massachusetts Association of Women’s Workers purchased the Rockport Lodge in order to give working-class, immigrant women in Boston the opportunity to spend a week at the seaside for a pittance. The lodge was faced with closure in 1976 and 1989, and finally closed its doors for good in 2002.
Diamant had friends who vacationed at the lodge in the 1970s and 1980s and felt a connection she said “dwindled in front of my eyes.”
“I originally thought I would focus on a group of immigrant women and their summers at the lodge,” she said.
But at some point during the three years it took Diamant to write the book, the story “turned from an overview of Rockport Lodge to a coming-of-age story.”
Her writing process always varies with each book, Diamant said, but in this case it was “a little more complicated.”
Rockport Lodge became re-imagined as a springboard of personal growth and education for the young Addie Baum. Diamant marks Rockport Lodge as Addie’s “first transgression” on her path toward self-determination.
Addie’s narrative is as much a story of the coming of age of the modern American woman as it is a story
of American immigration. The conflicts that Addie faces within her household on matters of Old and New World values are a part of the universal immigrant experience, Diamant said.
“It’s a pretty common phenomenon,” she said of the tensions between Addie and her parents.
Diamant is not afraid to keep the narrative honest by complicating the vision of the New World. There is seldom a gold-lined street and, although Addie’s story is one of triumph, other characters flounder within the new landscape.
“They never really arrive,” she said of Addie’s mother and her older sister, Celia. “America remains frightening and dangerous, and it never becomes a home for them.”
While Addie’s experiences with educational and professional barriers as a woman cast a light onto the gender inequality and male chauvinism that was accepted practice at the time, Diamant’s descriptions are subtle enough to make a point without standing on a soapbox.
Diamant herself rejects the critiques that her writing is driven by a feminist agenda.
“Raising issues of women’s abilities at the time and what they could and could not do really is just telling the true stories of what life was like back then,” she said.
Diamant relied primarily upon historical events – the flu epidemic, World War I, Prohibition – to guide Addie’s milestones. In doing this, she has given readers a new lens to apply to this snapshot of Boston. Addie’s story puts some flesh and bone onto an oft-sterilized historical remembrance.
In some ways, the setting could have been any city flush with immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, but for Diamant Boston is itself an integral character in the story.
“She’s an American girl and this is her America. We’re all grounded in particulars, and these are her particulars. You don’t live a life in the abstract – it has street names and foods and smells,” she said.
Just as the personal narrative reminds us of the many lived experiences that are never written into the larger historical discourse, Diamant reminds readers that the personal narrative itself is highly subjective in perception and presentation.
The octogenarian Addie comes off as rather frank in her recounting at times, even intimating the details of a brief affair with a horrid man at one point, but this is not to take her for a rambling old woman. Now and then Addie demonstrates a heightened awareness of her listener in her decisions to refrain from disclosing further details at certain points.
“He slept on her couch on Friday night, and Saturday night she stayed with a girlfriend so we could be alone, just the two of us, for the whole night. I’ll leave it at that.”
“She’s not spilling all the beans, she’s shaping her story in her own way. In a way she is not the most reliable narrator,” Diamant said.
Addie’s story is nothing remarkable in a country where people are more apt to describe their heritage then simply call themselves American. But it gains significance as a reminder to readers that history is not a being on its own, but the residue of collective experiences. If you wish to understand their place in time beyond a few historical markers, it might not hurt to call up a grandparent and ask them to retell their life. ///
Caroline Stanton is a Nantucket native and freelance writer, living and working in California.