Monday, November 21, 2011

The Little Bride by Anna Solomon

Some works of fiction leave the reader marveling over the imaginative powers of the author; such is the case with Anna Solomon’s debut novel, The Little Bride. We are introduced to the lead-character, Minna Losk, when she is sixteen and living in Odessa as a servant girl, but about to travel to America as a mail-order bride to an orthodox Jewish man more than twice her age. The time period is the tail end of the 19th century, and Minna hopes to escape not only the pogroms targeting Russian Jews but also the daily drudgery of physical labor involved in providing everything for a once wealthy Jewish woman whose wealth and health had deteriorated long before Minna at eleven years of age began to care for her.

While it is obvious that Solomon did a lot of research about the homesteading of Jews in the American west as well as of mail-order brides sent from Russia and other European cities to homesteading Jews, I am still stunned by her incredible imagination in creating and describing the journey of young Minna from Odessa to a sod house in South Dakota. The reader is introduced to Minna as she is undergoing a physical exam that has been mandated by her to-be rigorously orthodox husband. Shy and almost totally ignorant of sexual matters, she is subjected to a physical inspection by a Jewish doctor and his female assistant that Minna is later to describe as being inspected like a horse. Stripped and prodded and questioned in a cold, dark room, subjected to indignities that she had not even imagined, before finally receiving the stamp of approval: “’Unremarkable,’ said the doctor, and the hands closed Minna’s legs.”

From the dismal descriptions of a Jewish ghetto in Odessa where the inhabitants live in near constant fear of the next night-time raid by Russian soldiers, the reader travels with Minna across the Atlantic, steerage class, when nearly all the desperately poor emigrants are sea sick from the first day to the last, many dying before they reach the promised land. Minna sees New York for a day, sees Chicago from the windows of a train, and still dreams that a wealthy and handsome husband awaits her at the end of her journey. Instead, from boat to train, train to wagon and a trip though grasslands seemingly as vast as the ocean she just crossed until she arrives finally not at the fine house she had hoped for, but a rough sod house dug out of a hill in the flat sea of grass—dirt walls and floors, two step-sons, one of whom is older than Minna, and Max, her ultra orthodox husband who knows almost nothing about farming but who intends to create the new Jerusalam.
The men washed themselves in the same bucket she used to wash the dishes. The outhouse was made of crates, and stood only a few feet from the cave. There was little, within a few days, that Minna didn’t know of their habits and smells and noises. And yet no one had asked where she was born, or whether she had siblings or parents or any family at all, or what she had done with her life up until now.
I have to admit that this is a book I could not wait to finish, not because of curiosity about how it would end or wanting to read more of Minna’s bravery and endurance, but because of how utterly real and convincing Solomon’s descriptions are. While I admired the author’s incredible talents and Minna’s courage, I wanted to escape from the world that was being described to me. Like Minna, I wanted to be free, to breathe, to live.

Although raised as a Jew, Minna’s father was not orthodox, not really even a believer, so it comes as a series of shocks to Minna to see what is expected of her, what is expected of wives and woman even here in this new country. She does recall once as a child trying to follow her father into the men’s section of the synagogue, recalls the shame of being hauled out by the elbow and led to the dingy, lace-curtained women’s room in the back.
Minna cried until the woman next to her grabbed her hand, and leaned down to explain, in a friendly hush: “The man’s body? Contains his mind. The woman’s? Only a body. We are body bodies. Yes? Understand?”  
Minna had not understood. But she remembered. And over the years she’d seen how her body became a body body. Each swell of flesh, each darkening, each sudden hair that appeared full blown, like a black moth from a chrysalis, made her more powerful and doomed. This was what made Max shake, she knew. To him, Minna was dangerous simply because she was she, and he was he.
Of course, I’m not going to tell you how this story ends, nor even try to describe the incredibly harsh winter Minna suffers through during her first year in the sod house—the cold, the hunger, the isolation from the world. Solomon describes everything with an eye to detail that makes this read like memoir. Remarkably, Minna does not hate these men whom she has been thrown together with, and she certainly understands them better than they understand her. One commentator described this as a love story, and while I think that is the height of hyperbole, Solomon does create a character who sees so much more than her own misery. Speaking of that horrendous, seemingly everlasting winter.
A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness—if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling. The exercise grew familiar. The boys grew hair on their faces. And though Samuel’s was a full beard, and Jacob’s a layer of fuzz like a playactor might draw on, the hair made them look alike, and like Max, and Minna gave in to their merging, their repetition, as she gave in to the repetition of hunger. She knew that she loved them, the beards, the bodies, the men themselves. She saw them out of the corners of her eyes, she brushed them as she passed. They were furniture. You could love anyone, she thought, if you needed to. And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.
I don’t think I have to add that this is not a happy book, perhaps not one to read on a dark winter’s night. But it is nevertheless a wonderful book, and I think we can expect great things from this writer.

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