Novelistic non-fiction reveals Depression-era Jewish immigrant life

 My Mother’s Wars, by Lillian Faderman. Beacon Press. 264 pages. $25.95.

 This strikingly intelligent and emotionally wrenching narrative traces almost a decade in the life of its main character. Mary Lifton. Set in New York beginning in 1932, the story explores Mary’s life as a Jewish immigrant from Europe. Her good fortune is that her family got her out of Latvia long before Nazi power and U. S. quotas severely limited chances for such relocations. Mary’s life as an uneducated, Depression-era foreigner, a woman without influence or meaningful support system, represents the life of many such desperate individuals. And yet Mary is remarkably well profiled by the author. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the author is Mary’s daughter.  FADERMAN-MyMother'sWars

 I haven’t yet used the word biography to label this work because given the liberties that Ms. Faderman admits to taking, the book could have quite easily been published as fiction. The main sources for building character and situation are conversations between mother and daughter over the years.  Many of these conversations (as well as conversations between Faderman and her mother’s younger sister) belong to a wholly different era than the events, beginning perhaps in the 1960s.  Given the richness of the source material, this reader finds an unexpected remoteness between author-daughter and mother-character. In spite of this sense of distance, and due no doubt to the author’s skill and inventiveness, a luxuriantly imagined Mary Lifton explodes from the pages.

 Whether viewed as fiction, biography, or creative nonfiction, My Mother’s Wars is a powerful achievement. One of its many glories is Prof. Faderman’s portrait of the New York Depression-Era garment industry. Her descriptions of work spaces and conditions, interactions among employees, and operations of union and nonunion shops, are totally engrossing and ring with authenticity. In these descriptions, the author demonstrates her ability to turn voluminous research into flowing action and imagery.

 Faderman underscores not only that this industry depended largely on Jewish and other immigrant laborers, but also that Jewish ownership was prominent – even dominant.

 The author creates additional context by beginning each chapter with carefully constructed “Time on the March” introductions. Having the feel of movie-house newsreels, these nuggets of historical fact are drawn largely from contemporary reports in Time magazine and the New York Times. They outline the different stages of two processes: the horrific rise of Nazi Germany and the disastrous slide of the U. S. economy.

Lillian Faderman

Lillian Faderman

 The story proper begins in 1932 with Mary already in her mid-thirties. She had already lived more than half of her life in the United States. Anti-Semitism, which Latvia had in abundance, did not seem to have influenced her relocation at the age of seventeen. Rather, her marketable skills in clothing manufacture and her determination to become a professional entertainer led her to accept her step-sister’s invitation to immigrate.  But the sponsorship of the step-sister and her step-sister’s husband created an awkward sense of obligation, and the clash of personalities was extreme.  After only a few months, young Mary was out on her own. At first, she loved the freedom. However, over time, loneliness engulfed her. . . .

The full review is available at the Washington Independent Review of Books. See: My Mother’s Wars | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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