Told as a series of anecdotes from a Jewish grandmother, Addie Baum, to her granddaughter Ava, The Boston Girl is a coming-of-age story set in the early 1900s. Addie’s parents have fled an unnamed country in Europe, and Addie is the first child born in the United States. Her father and sister work in a sweatshop, and the family lives in a tenement. Addie’s parents expect her to leave school after 8th grade and start working.
Central to the story is the Rockport Lodge, which served as a sort of summer camp or retreat for teenage girls whose parents were poor immigrants. There, Addie makes lifelong friends and begins to realize that she could have a life more expansive than toiling in a sweatshop, waiting to get married.
Addie’s voice is delightful: warm, down-to-earth, honest, and sometimes funny. Here is the prelude to her first visit to Rockport Lodge:
The day I went to Rockport was my sixteenth birthday, July 10. I didn’t have a lot to do to get ready. I could wear just about all the clothes I owned and the rest I stuffed into an old pillowcase I bought from a ragman’s cart for a few pennies. I left a note in Celia’s shoe to say I was going on a vacation with some nice girls I knew. I also left two dollars—all of my spending money—even though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference to my mother. I put chicken fat on the door hinges so they wouldn’t squeak in the morning. I was very proud of myself for thinking of that. (p. 25)
Addie struggles to break free from her mother, who complains and scolds all day long, and who disdains Addie’s dreams and ambitions. Addie also endures tragedy during the 1918 flu epidemic, and gets entangled with all the wrong men (until she meets Ava’s grandfather, of course).
A few sections of the novel sag when the focus shifts from Addie to her friends, but for the most part this is a very readable journey through the life of a woman who was remarkable not necessarily because of what she accomplished, but because she tried hard to be true to herself in the face of pressure from her family and society.
The photo above, from Radliffe’s Schlesinger Library, shows Diamant in front of the real Rockport Lodge.