4 out of 4 stars
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A young woman harbors a dark secret. A young man is hounded for his beliefs. They leave their homeland and meet as indentured labor in the fields of the new world. The story of how they come together and make a life for themselves far from their families and homes is recounted in Tante Minnie.
Based on the family history of the author, Marilyn Parker’s generational novel tells the story of her great-aunt Michla Bromoff and her life as an unwilling immigrant from Russia. Fear and desperation cause her to leave the family she loves to work in the potato fields of Suffolk County, New York. There she meets Zelig Frumkin, the man who will be her husband. Though she longs for a home and family, her secret threatens her marriage and affects her life and happiness. Tante Minnie details how Michla, whose name is changed to Minnie at Ellis Island, rises above her fear and loneliness to make a life with Zelig and become the backbone of her family.
Tante Minnie is a look at the struggles and triumphs of two Jewish immigrants. Beginning in the late 1800s, the book follows Minnie until her death in 1952. The novel is written using a narrator’s voice, thereby allowing the reader access to the thoughts of almost every character mentioned. While this gives you a deeper understanding of each person’s motivations and beliefs, at times it is awkward. I found it especially distressing during the early phase of Minnie and Zelig’s marriage, as their intimacy problems are hashed over from both points of view. I was surprised to read detailed descriptions of their sexual activity and certainly wasn't interested in a double dose of it.
The author did an admirable job of creating a clear rendering of farm life and then later of city life. Minnie and Zelig move to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and become members of the Jewish community. The book is heavily laden with Jewish customs and Yiddish phrases. Mrs. Parker has provided a glossary at the back of the book which is helpful. The dialog is written to verbalize their Yiddish accents, and it is obvious that the author wished to accurately reflect the way her family spoke English. Although I grew up on Long Island and knew people who spoke with this type of accent, there were times that I found it cumbersome sounding out a sentence full of phonetic pronunciations.
I enjoyed the historical aspect of this book and appreciated how Minnie was portrayed as a strong and sometimes demanding woman. Mrs. Parker includes historical tidbits such as the politics of the time, the Holocaust, and even the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed many immigrant workers in New York City. But the primary focus of the book is on Minnie and Zelig and their relationship and work life. Without giving spoilers, I will say that both are flawed and sometimes selfish characters. Despite their faults, I felt quite sympathetic toward them and was saddened by their attitudes and actions toward one another. By the end of the book, they resolve their issues to some degree.
I would happily recommend this book to those interested in historical fiction, particularly those interested in the history of the Jewish experience in New York. At times I felt this read like a romance, so I think lovers of that genre might want to give it a look. I would not recommend this book to those who are put off by scenes of frank and uncensored sexual activity. I did not notice one grammatical or typographic error and found the book well written and enjoyable. I rate Tante Minnie a 4 out of 4 stars.
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