The Little Bride

  • Anna Solomon
  • Riverhead Trade
  • 320 pp.

Bridal or bridle? A young Jewish woman is harnessed into an arranged marriage in this 19th-century historical novel.

Reviewed by Maria Kontak

“I didn’t come here to survive,” says the heroine of this historical novel, set in the land of promise, America.

Begun in 19th-century Odessa, the action shifts quickly to the barren plains of South Dakota, or Sodokota as the author, Anna Solomon, engagingly puts it. Although 16-year-old Minna Losk is shipped off as a Jewish mail-order bride from Odessa to America for a new life, this is not a vacation tale of adventure and romance in America’s Wild West.

A charitable Jewish organization in America dedicated to rescuing fellow Jews from pogroms, almost too vividly evoked in Anna Solomon’s recreation of 19th-century Russia, is behind Minna’s fate. While the Am Olam, or Eternal People, movement of the 1880s is not the central focus of the novel, it is this historical underpinning that lends gravity to Minna’s grueling journey from Odessa. Pogroms aside, Minna’s life in Russia has been less than sweet, even before the horrifying medico-psychological exam to test her fitness as a Jewish bride.

Gruesome scenes of gratuitous violence, however, have not numbed Minna’s young heart. She pins her hopes on the photograph of her American husband issued to her by the charitable agency. In the grainy snapshot, Max stands on the roof of a grand house, at least in Minna’s mind, and he is waiting for her.

The hellish trip across the Atlantic sobers Minna’s dreams as much as it makes them more palpable. On the voyage, she encounters horrible tragedy, but she has grown used to that in Russia, not only because of the pogroms but because of her particular family circumstances. What is significant during the voyage, though, are Minna’s encounters with two fellow travelers. Faga is a woman who teaches her about purpose, and, rather surprisingly, returns at the end of the novel to refresh the lesson. The other acquaintance, a man, is a vague forerunner of Minna’s gentle but obsessive husband Max, whom Minna will never comprehend.

There are, however, two stepsons at the end of Minna’s journey. Jacob and Samuel are closer to Minna in age and mode of thought, and an antidote to Max’s old world piety and obsessions that prevent him from making life worth living for his family, in contrast to neighboring homesteaders. The German Christians, Otto and Liesl, and the Russian Jews, Ruth and Leo, have built prosperous households and are generous to Max and Minna to the extent that Max will allow. The novel, rich in detail of Jewish customs and traditions, portrays Max as the sort of man who chooses to spend his days building a mikvah, or ritual bath, and donning his prayer shawl instead of building a root cellar and tilling the land. Max, who is determined to father a child, has his own story to tell, however obliquely, while Minna must suffer his obsessions and embraces.

Minna remains the focus throughout: the suffering little bride. Her sufferings may be more bitter in America than in Odessa, worse than the torturous exams she underwent in order to qualify as a bride. They are more acute than the struggles of pioneer women in Willa Cather’s prairie novel My Antonia. Suffering of the innocent is the real theme of the book. Even superb writing and vivid descriptions cannot blunt the tortured psyche that underpins its pages. While Dostoevsky’s images of gratuitous cruelty towards animals and Dickens’ towards children come to mind, it is Shostakovich’s description of his life that may be most apt: a long slow progression of gray days. And so the novel unfolds.

Despite the curious details of Jewish practices and those valiantly trying to keep them afloat in America’s steppe, and a few recipes from American pioneer life that bring a chuckle to the reader, one gray day succeeds another. Even the dialogue turns bleak. But as in many a fine novel, the magical happens in The Little Bride. The reader catches a patch of light and Shostakovich’s view seems negated. Minna apparently escapes her cruel fate, this time with her knight in less than shining armor in a rickety wagon hitched to a mule and a lame horse. The stepson, Samuel, on whom she has been harboring a crush, takes her away from the miserable life that Max has to offer. Promise looms once more. Minna and Samuel journey to a Jewish colony, the Am Olam agrarian Eden for Jews, whose patron is a bizarre railroad baron.

Minna’s second journey, however, is no less perplexing than her first. Does she more than survive as she had hoped the first time around? Have the gray days that haunted her life as forceful, omnipresent shadows given way? Or does she go back to where she started and survive in her own way? Perhaps all or none of the above may happen.

Maria Kontak, published author of short stories in the webzine, is currently working on her first novel, The Thirty Third Year. She holds a doctorate in Russian literature from the University of Michigan.

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