Tag Archives: Great Depression

“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson

Sourcebooks/Landmark. 320 pages. Trade Paperback Original. $15.99. 

Readers are likely to find Ms. Richardson’s fourth novel to be one of the most original and unusual contributions they will encounter in the realm of the current literature of the  American South. Set in the heart of the Great Depression, this engaging story rests on two little-known historical features. One of these is the existence of a shunned community of blue-skinned people who fight racial prejudice on a daily basis. However, they are not racially different from the whites who taunt and disrespect them. The are Caucasian in physical features and in all ways but skin color. Nonetheless, being different dooms them, defining them as misfits.

The other historical feature is the author’s exploration of the “book women,” workers in one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s projects to rebuild the U. S. economy and provide useful employments along the way.


The project is essentially educational – an attempt to bring reading materials – and enhanced literacy — to isolated communities. In this case, the communities are in Kentucky’s coal mining belt. The Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project is staffed by dedicated people, mostly women, who not only travel arduous routes to serve their clients, but who bring an unexpected, uplifting enlightenment to those who are brave enough to find value in books other than the bible.

These workers help the children, and even the parents, develop a love of reading along with greater reading skill. They provide reading suggestions, they keep tabs on the books in their charge, and their visits become high points on the calendars of those whom they visit. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here: Book Woman

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

New Issues Poetry & Prose. 408 Pages. Hardcover  $26
Review by Philip K. Jason

Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present—a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families. 

Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.

There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.

Carol Zoref

The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher—the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Barren Island by Carol Zoref | Jewish Book Council

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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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