Tag Archives: 1930s

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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BOOK BEAT 48 – Penny Lauer

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   July 4-10, 2007

by Philip K. Jason

Pelican Bay resident Penny Lauer has been enjoying Naples since 1999, when she and her husband Bob relocated from Cleveland. This Ohio University graduate loves the array of activities available here. She volunteers for many groups, including the Shelter for Abused Women and Children. Also, she has organized a Salon of eighteen women who are writers, artists, designers, and collectors. They meet regularly to discuss their projects and encourage one another. One of these projects was her novel, “Bottled Butterfly,” which has just been published.

Two years ago, Lauer discovered the Naples Writers’ Conference run by the Naples Press Club. She was impressed by the approach to publishing Bob Gelinas, head of Archebooks Publishing, discussed in one of the presentations. At the 2006 Conference, she took the opportunity to pitch a manuscript to him. Six months later, Lauer was offered a contract from ArcheBooks. 

Through young Nellie, “Bottled Butterfly” tackles the impact of regional culture beliefs, poverty, illiteracy, and the dysfunctions of family life on children and how those issues influence behavior in adulthood. Set in the 1930’s and 1940’s in rural Ohio, the story vividly depicts the issues that confronted young women back then, and how they remain much the same today.

Nellie is a courageous young woman whose deep inner strength and big heart drive an insatiable longing to achieve more than what others envision for her. There is a life tucked inside her mind that no one else can see, and her aspirations for her own daughter push her into making that life a reality.

“Bottled Butterfly,” eloquent and lyrical, is a kind of wisdom literature in which the guilt and shame that follow Nelly’s trauma of being sexually attacked at the age of eleven are gradually transformed into positive, productive emotions.

Lauer told me that the title “came about in a funny way. Almost 2/3 into the novel, I had Nelly talking with her father down by the railroad tracks, after a tragic incident between him and his son. Nellie had a sense that perhaps he, too, had been held back by circumstances that he couldn’t control. He let her know that he had just given up, and he told her that she should never give up or allow herself to get trapped. It’s a very poignant moment. Prior to that scene, I had Nellie explain to the reader that she was feeling all ‘bottled up.’ One night in bed, I woke up, shook my husband, and said that I had it. I had the title. It describes Nellie. She is the bottled butterfly. It fit perfectly.” The title gave the rest of the writing process needed focus. 

Before ArcheBooks accepted her manuscript, Lauer had a professional editor review it. This editor suggested minor changes and caught occasional slips in point of view. Once Bob Gelinas accepted it, Lauer was motivated to improve it even more before it reached the public. “I got really hung up then on the emotions of the characters, and I tried to make them as defined as possible. I asked four friends whose knowledge and wisdom I respect to read it and tell me their thoughts. Two of them wanted me to tell more about the brothers and Old Phoebe. I did up to a point, but I didn’t want to dwell on the brothers because I felt that doing so wouldn’t add anything to the main plot. I wanted Old Phoebe to remain somewhat of a mystery and let people really think about her.” All in all, the book was edited six times.

Lauer was spurred on by the need to tell this story, which had occupied her heart and mind for a very long time. She found the writing process amazingly rewarding. While writing, Lauer says, she was “happy and challenged and involved. You might say that I was consumed, but in a very positive way.” She “let the thoughts and words come on their own free will.” And she’d write “soaking wet from the shower, plop down in the sand during a walk and record, get up in the middle of the night and write for hours that seemed like minutes.” Thoughts might come to her “at a movie or at a restaurant . . . anywhere, and I rushed to get them down immediately, however I could.”

Lauer received a great compliment during the writing process. A friend who had read the manuscript called to tell her that, while agonizing over a dilemma, she had asked herself “what would Nellie do?” Lauer is ordering mugs wearing that phrase.

“Bottled Butterfly” is now available from online and standard booksellers as well as from archebooks.com.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.

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