An unforgettable novel about a young Jewish woman growing up in Boston in the early twentieth century, told “with humor and optimism...through the eyes of an irresistible heroine” (People)—from the acclaimed author of The Red Tent.
Anita Diamant’s “vivid, affectionate portrait of American womanhood” (Los Angeles Times), follows the life of one woman, Addie Baum, through a period of dramatic change. Addie is The Boston Girl, the spirited daughter of an immigrant Jewish family, born in 1900 to parents who were unprepared for America and its effect on their three daughters. Growing up in the North End of Boston, then a teeming multicultural neighborhood, Addie’s intelligence and curiosity take her to a world her parents can’t imagine—a world of short skirts, movies, celebrity culture, and new opportunities for women. Addie wants to finish high school and dreams of going to college. She wants a career and to find true love. From the one-room tenement apartment she shared with her parents and two sisters, to the library group for girls she joins at a neighborhood settlement house, to her first, disastrous love affair, to finding the love of her life, eighty-five-year-old Addie recounts her adventures with humor and compassion for the naïve girl she once was.
Written with the same attention to historical detail and emotional resonance that made Diamant’s previous novels bestsellers, The Boston Girl is a moving portrait of one woman’s complicated life in twentieth century America, and a fascinating look at a generation of women finding their places in a changing world. “Diamant brings to life a piece of feminism’s forgotten history” (Good Housekeeping) in this “inspirational…page-turning portrait of immigrant life in the early twentieth century” (Booklist).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 27, 1951
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:M.A. in English, SUNY, Binghamton, NY, 1975; B.A. in Comparative Literature, Washington Univ., St. Louis, MO, 1973.
Read an Excerpt
The Boston Girl
Nobody told you?
Ava, sweetheart, if you ask me to talk about how I got to be the woman I am today, what do you think I’m going to say? I’m flattered you want to interview me. And when did I ever say no to my favorite grandchild?
I know I say that to all of my grandchildren and I mean it every single time. That sounds ridiculous or like I’m losing my marbles, but it’s true. When you’re a grandmother you’ll understand.
And why not? Look at the five of you: a doctor, a social worker, two teachers, and now you.
Of course they’re going to accept you into that program. Don’t be silly. My father is probably rolling over in his grave, but I think it’s wonderful.
Don’t tell the rest of them, but you really are my favorite and not only because you’re the youngest. Did you know you were named after me?
It’s a good story.
Everyone else is named in memory of someone who died, like your sister Jessica, who was named for my nephew Jake. But I was very sick when you were born and when they thought I wasn’t going to make it, they went ahead and just hoped the angel of death wouldn’t make a mistake and take you, Ava, instead of me, Addie. Your parents weren’t that superstitious, but they had to tell everyone you were named after your father’s cousin Arlene, so people wouldn’t give them a hard time.
It’s a lot of names to remember, I know.
Grandpa and I named your aunt Sylvia for your grandfather’s mother, who died in the flu epidemic. Your mother is Clara after my sister Celia.
What do you mean, you didn’t know I had a sister named Celia? That’s impossible! Betty was the oldest, then Celia, and then me. Maybe you forgot.
Nobody told you? You’re sure?
Well, maybe it’s not such a surprise. People don’t talk so much about sad memories. And it was a long time ago.
But you should know this. So go ahead. Turn on the tape recorder.
My father came to Boston from what must be Russia now. He took my sisters, Betty and Celia, with him. It was 1896 or maybe 1897; I’m not sure. My mother came three or four years later and I was born here in 1900. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life, which anyone can tell the minute I open my mouth.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Boston Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Addie Baum was born in Boston in 1900 to immigrant Jewish parents who live very modest lives. She is the youngest of three daughters and the only one not born in Eastern Europe. Her father and sister Celia work in factories; Addie’s mother opposes worldly American values; and her eldest sister, Betty, lives independently and works in a downtown department store. Growing up in the North End is challenging for Addie. She longs for a high school education. When a local library club gives her the chance to learn and spend a week at the summer inn Rockport Lodge, Addie encounters a diverse group of girls united by their ambitions to be free young women. The friendships she forges at Rockport Lodge last a lifetime and help her through many difficult periods. As Addie grows into adulthood, she discovers the cruelty of illness and the untoward intentions of young men alongside the excitement of social changes taking place in America and new professional opportunities available to women.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Early on it is clear that Addie has a rebellious streak, joining the library group and running away to Rockport Lodge. Is Addie right to disobey her parents? Where does she get her courage?
2. Addie’s mother refuses to see Celia’s death as anything but an accident, and Addie comments that “whenever I heard my mother’s version of what happened, I felt sick to my stomach” (page 94). Did Celia commit suicide? How might the guilt that Addie feels differ from the guilt her mother feels?
3. When Addie tries on pants for the first time, she feels emotionally as well as physically liberated, and confesses that she would like to go to college (page 108). How does the social significance of clothing and hairstyle differ for Addie, Gussie, and Filomena in the book?
4. Diamant fills her narrative with a number of historical events and figures, from the psychological effects of World War I and the pandemic outbreak of influenza in 1918 to child labor laws to the cultural impact of Betty Friedan. How do real-life people and events affect how we read Addie’s fictional story?
5. Gussie is one of the most forward-thinking characters in the novel; however, despite her law degree she has trouble finding a job as an attorney because “no one would hire a lady lawyer” (page 145). What other limitations do Addie and her friends face in the work force? What limitations do women and/or minorities face today?
6. After distancing herself from Ernie when he suffers a nervous episode brought on by combat stress, Addie sees a community of war veterans come forward to assist him (page 155). What does the remorse that Addie later feels suggest about the challenges American soldiers face as they reintegrate into society? Do you think soldiers today face similar challenges?
7. Addie notices that the Rockport locals seem related to one another, and the cook Mrs. Morse confides in her sister that, although she is usually suspicious of immigrant boarders, “some of them are nicer than Americans” (page 167). How does tolerance of the immigrant population vary between city and town in the novel? For whom might Mrs. Morse reserve the term “Americans”?
8. Addie is initially drawn to Tessa Thorndike because she is a Boston Brahmin who isn’t afraid to poke fun at her own class on the women’s page of the newspaper. What strengths and weaknesses does Tessa’s character represent for educated women of the time? How does Addie’s description of Tessa bring her reliability into question?
9. Addie’s parents frequently admonish her for being ungrateful, but Addie feels she has earned her freedom to move into a boarding house when her parents move to Roxbury, in part because she contributed to the family income (page 185). How does the Baum family move to Roxbury show the ways Betty and Addie think differently than their parents about household roles? Why does their father take such offense at Harold Levine’s offer to house the family?
10. The last meaningful conversation between Addie and her mother turns out to be an apology her mother meant for Celia, and for a moment during her mother’s funeral Addie thinks, “She won’t be able to make me feel like there’s something wrong with me anymore” (page 276). Does Addie find any closure from her mother’s death?
11. Filomena draws a distinction between love and marriage when she spends time catching up with Addie before her wedding, but Addie disagrees with the assertion that “you only get one great love in a lifetime” (page 289). In what ways do the different romantic experiences of each woman inform the ideas each has about love?
12. Filomena and Addie share a deep friendship. Addie tells Ada that “sometimes friends grow apart…But sometimes, it doesn’t matter how far apart you live or how little you talk—it’s still there” (page 283). What qualities do you think friends must share in order to have that kind of connection? Discuss your relationship with a best friend.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Want to see what all the fuss was about? Read some of Margaret Sanger’s works, such as What Every Mother Should Know from 1911 and What Every Girl Should Know from 1916, and discuss their impact.
2. Filomena’s pottery instructor, Miss Green, is said to work in the Arts & Crafts style of William Morris. Check out The William Morris Society online at www.morrissociety.org to explore this style in book design and furniture as well as in the decorative arts. With some inspiration in mind, try a class at a local pottery.
3. Rockport Lodge is a real place, a three-story white clapboard farmhouse in Rockport, Massachusetts, founded in the early 1900s to provide inexpensive chaperoned holidays to girls of modest means. Diamant accessed the Rockport Lodge archives at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America to research the book. Take a look at the Schlesinger archives online, www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library, for more on the American experience for women and share some of your findings.