Bride Shipped from Shtetl to South Dakota
The Little Bride
Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $15
In her classic 1912 memoir of immigration to the United States, “The Promised Land,” Mary Antin notes: “A long girlhood, a free choice in marriage, and a brimful of womanhood are the precious rights of an American woman.” Tell that to Minna Losk.
In Anna Solomon’s first novel, “The Little Bride,” Minna travels to America to marry a man she’s never met. Abandoned by her mother and then orphaned when the salt mine where her father works collapses on him — how’s that as a metaphor for the wages of menial labor? — Minna, a teenager in the Pale of Settlement in the 1880s, decides she’d rather take her chances as a mail-order bride than stick around in her job as the maid of a dissolute Odessa matron, waiting for the next pogrom.
Unfortunately, the institutionalized matchmaking of the late 19th century turns out to have been considerably less convenient than JDate. Instead of filling out an online questionnaire, Minna finds herself stripped naked, poked and interrogated by employees of the marriage brokerage in a chilly Odessa basement. Then, for her troubles, she’s shipped off in steerage to the first man who wants her, a sad sack trying to make a go of it as farmer on the plains of South Dakota.
While they were hardly a mass phenomenon, such marriages did take place: Solomon drew inspiration, and a number of the specific details, from a woman who homesteaded in North Dakota and whose 1936 Yiddish memoir of pioneer life was translated into English as “Rachel Calof’s Story” (Indiana University Press, 1995).
Minna’s situation isn’t typical even of Jewish pioneers, though. Her fiance, Max, is older than her father and a bit of a nut. The failed scion of a long line of rabbis, he was dumped by his first wife and left with two grown sons, a rocky patch of land and a one-room hut in which they live. He’s willful, but self-defeating in his stubbornness and iconoclasm: Although he knows nothing about agriculture, he refuses to accept assistance from an organization that aids Jewish farmers.
He also remains religiously punctilious in ways that don’t make any sense on the plains, allowing an entire season’s wheat harvest to be destroyed, for instance, because he won’t labor on the Sabbath. So this is a story not just of the difficulties of life on a South Dakota homestead, but also of life with a frumer masochist. If he weren’t intent on torturing himself, Max would surely not choose to live in a place with too few Jews for a minyan and several days’ journey from the nearest kosher butcher.
As in many such stories, kashrut becomes a symbol of religious commitment or lack thereof. In “The Promised Land,” Antin describes how even she, a freethinker, struggled to eat pork — “only a newly abnegated Jew can understand with what squirming.… with what abhorrence of myself.” By contrast, Minna, a nonbeliever, laps up treyf whenever she can get it; during one stay with her non-Jewish neighbors, her intake includes “one piece of bacon, two bratwurst, more chicken legs than she could count, and three bites of a pink, fleshy, frightening, delicious roast they called, simply, ham.”
Minna’s biggest problem, meanwhile, isn’t hunger or cold or even Max’s religious zeal; it’s that she lusts for her stepson, Samuel, who is closer to her own age and temperament than her husband. He’s a constant temptation, too, given that there’s not much privacy on a farm with a total of one room.
Solomon constructs Minna’s fictional world diligently, sprinkling the text with historically and regionally apposite artifacts such as a droll song — “The Hebrew Clothing Drummer,” published in 1882 — Minna’s vague fears of white slavery and the chokecherry wine she sips under the chuppah. Solomon has tried, too, to retain the flavor of the Yiddish that Jewish immigrants would have spoken to one another, but she sometimes stumbles. Why leave a lone Yiddish word like bislekhvayz (“gradually”) untranslated in the otherwise-translated-into-English speech of a character who is speaking Yiddish? Solomon also places the Americanism feygele — a pejorative for “homosexual” — into the thoughts of an Eastern European for whom, the linguists say, it wouldn’t have had that connotation.
Some anecdotes here smack of cliché, too: The memories of pogroms come off as wooden, and incidents on Minna’s ocean voyage are all too predictable in their whimsy and tragedy. But Solomon gets more of the details right than wrong. There’s plenty to admire in her prose, which ranges from hard-boiled to ornate and chugs ahead at an admirable clip. Especially impressive are the unflinching accounts of Minna’s repulsive sexual encounters with her husband. “Did you feel pleasure, Minna?… Did you feel desire?” he asks, pathetically, while what she wants is “to vomit, then sleep.”
It’s tempting to compare Solomon’s novel to Alison Amend’s “Stations West” (2010), which, like “The Little Bride,” is a novel about Jews on the American frontier in the 19th century and, likewise, was written by a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Maybe relocating to Iowa encouraged these writers to fantasize about the mythic West? But the temptation is fleeting. The novels are little alike in style or scope. “The Little Bride” focuses on a single year in Minna’s life, while Amend’s book telescopes almost the entire history of Jews in Oklahoma. More relevant precedents for Solomon’s work are the Yiddish novels of Isaac Raboy, including “Herr Goldenbarg” (1913) and “Jewish Cowboy” (1942), the latter of which was finally translated to English in 1989. Like Minna, Raboy himself didn’t last long in the Dakotas, but his fiction transformed the frontier into a metaphor for how far Jewish immigrants might go in America.
Solomon finally grants her protagonist the “brimful of womanhood” that Antin declared was every American woman’s right — Minna finds it in Chicago — but the novel retains skepticism about the ability of Jews to flourish in the most far-flung and sparsely populated American locales. It’s a reminder of just how circuitous and fraught with compromise the journeys of immigrants can be.