It’s finally here: Kveller book club time! This past month we’ve been reading The Little Bride by Anna Solomon, the story of a 16-year-old Jewish girl from Odessa traveling to America as a mail-order bride. The following is a discussion among the Kveller editors–Molly Tolsky, Adina Kay-Gross, Carla Naumburg, Jordana Horn, and Deborah Kolben–about the book. Read through, and then chime in with your thoughts in the comments section below.
Molly: Put yourself in Minna’s shoes. 16 years old. Mom gone. Dad dead. Housekeeper for a promiscuous drunk. And dealing with, of all things, pogroms. Would you ever consider going the mail-order bride route? And do you think, by the end, she regrets it?
Adina: Considering what a bleak portrait Solomon paints for us here, I’d have to say that UM YES, I think I’d try and do whatever the hell I could to get out of Odessa. But I can’t say that I can put myself in Minna’s shoes because–and I might be showing my cards too early here–I found Minna’s character to be essentially character-less. I really had no idea what she was like by the end of the book. Not what she looked like, not why she loved what she loved, nothing. I can say, though, that the shadowy portrait we get of Rebecca, the younger housekeeper hired on to replace Minna, was more harrowing and more telling of just how depraved that life was than anything we got from Minna’s POV, and I got this in only a few scenes.
Given that, its hard for me to say whether I think Minna regrets her mail-order-bride decision. She just strikes me as totally numb.
Carla: I certainly found Minna’s decision to become a mail-order bride believable, not because I had a good sense of Minna’s inner world, but because it seemed reasonable given her life circumstances. Despite the fact that her reality couldn’t be more different than mine, I can imagine making the same decision (or a similarly desperate one) if I were in her life, full of danger and violence and lacking in friends or family.
Regarding the issue of regret–I got the sense that she regretted her decision (or at least doubted it) the minute she realized she was going to have stepsons, and that she would be living in a dug-out with a dirt floor in the middle of nowhere. However, as her story progressed, it seemed as though she was trying to make a life of it. She took the advice from Ruth, and began to try to improve her situation, such as whitewashing the walls. Also, when the boys are away, and Max was digging the mikveh–I wondered if they were starting to connect. Clearly, she didn’t really feel as though they had, as she slept with Samuel once she had the chance, and eventually ran away again.
Jordana: Honestly, I don’t really know what I’d have done: what does a risk-averse person do in an environment full of risk? I have often wondered about this, since the part of the American story that often goes untold is that the people who came over were people who felt they had little to lose. After all, if you were doing great in Europe, why risk the voyage, the new country, the new language, the new life? Minna didn’t have much going for her in Europe, and so the prospect of a mail-order marriage seemed just as palatable to her as going forward in her current life–though if anything, perhaps the latter would give her more opportunity. There was a line in the book where Minna said that only poor people could afford to marry for love at the time. It was such a different world–and a sight-unseen marriage was Minna’s only ticket out of an unpleasant European fate.
Deborah: I probably would have just married the milk man in Odessa. I totally understand Minna’ decision, but I think I would have been too afraid that I would be married off to an old troll. And well, looks like I wouldn’t have been so far off.
Molly: Do you think Max’s son Samuel loved Minna? Or hated her?
Jordana: I think Samuel’s feelings for Minna were much closer to hate than love. Here was a random woman who came into their house, intended to take the place of his mother, who was far closer to his own age than his father’s. She was a stranger who was meant to be thought of and loved as family. She was also one of the few semi-eligible women for miles around, if we want to be realistic. Let me rephrase: I think Samuel hated himself and that his interaction/relationship wtih Minna was a manifestation of that self-hatred. He hated himself, he hated his life, he couldn’t help but think what might have been in any other part of the world that was less desolate and hateful than South Dakota.
Carla: I don’t think Samuel loved Minna, either. I don’t think love was part of the equation for any of them. It seems to be that the dynamic between them was teenage lust; she was only 16, and he wasn’t much older. Also, they were in the middle of nowhere, and he did see her naked down by the river.
I think Samuel was angry at everything–at his father for being so focused on religious observance to the detriment of their survival, at his mother for leaving, at being stuck in the middle of nowhere, at having to be the man in the family, and at Minna for being there, for not being more competent, and for colluding with his father at being totally focused on relatively unimportant issues (such as digging the mikvah instead of focusing on what they needed for survival).
Molly: One thing that I kept thinking about while reading was whether the fact that Max was devoutly religious and Minna was not at all religious was a major factor in why their marriage wasn’t working out (I mean, besides being an arranged marriage based on absolutely nothing). I guess I wonder, does having the same level of religious observance automatically give a relationship a better foundation?
Adina: I think it didn’t really. I think if Minna had even a drop of feeling for Max, she might have tried to meet him halfway on the religion stuff. That seems to be the way it works–or at least, the way we want to think it will work, initially–when it comes to marriages where one partner has a different relationship with religion than the other. Love conquers all, right?? (Ok, wrong, I know, but my point is that if Minna had loved Max, I don’t know if the religion stuff would have mattered as much.)
Jordana: Yes in that it deprives you of a future fertile ground for conflict. But even within same degrees of religious observance, people can hold wildly divergent opinions. That is why there is the joke about the Jewish guy who is found on a deserted island, and he gives a tour to his rescuers.
Rescuers: “What’s that building?”
Jewish guy: “That’s my shul.”
Rescuers (pointing to another building): “What’s THAT building?”
Jewish guy: “That’s the OTHER shul. I wouldn’t go there if you paid me.”
Molly: I could also see at times where Minna might have been jealous of Max, that he has something like prayer to fall back on to get through difficult times. I think if she could fully immerse herself in prayer and faith, she would, at least to make her current situation more bearable, but she’s just not programmed that way, and it’s definitely not something you can fake your way through.
And now for something else: What do you think we’re supposed to make of Minna’s barrenness? Is she actually barren? Or malnourished? Or could it be a psychological thing? Maybe she didn’t want to be on 16 and Pregnant: The Prairie Edition? Do you think she’ll ever want or have children?
Adina: I think you’re on to something, Molly. My guess is that she wasn’t truly barren and rather, was completely closed, mentally and physically, to the idea of having a baby. That said, I could see the older Minna eschewing motherhood too– perhaps thinking (correctly!) that she had spent enough of her life sacrificing for others and was ready for some “me” time.
I realize this might seem like a non sequitur but bear with me: my grandmother also came to the United States from Odessa on a boat (years after Minna). And while she did marry for love and happily had children, she also took very good care of herself and loved shoes–because she once suffered through a pogrom where Russian soldiers stole her brand new shoes. My point is, even as a little girl, my grandmother promised herself that when she got to America, she would live a better life, and once she was able, she did. Fancy shoes, nice clothes, a beautiful appearance, always. It wasn’t a matter of confused priorities, rather, it was a vindication of sorts. I imagine that’s the same for minna, when it comes to deciding against having kids.
So what do you guys think? Please leave comments below in response to any of these questions, and then feel free to bring up your own topics of discussion, too! We’ll all be sure to chime in and keep the discussion going for as long as you all want.
**Also, be sure to join us on Twitter tomorrow for our chat with The Little Bride author Anna Solomon (@SolomonAnna) from 12 – 1 p.m. EST. You’ll be able to follow along with the hashtag #kvellerlit and pose any questions to Anna that you like.**