by Alice McDermott
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013
The Boston Girl
by Anita Diamant
The company where I work serves the real estate industry, which has two primary trade show seasons each year: one that runs January-May and one that runs August-November. Being the marketing director, I do quite a bit of traveling during those periods – and check out quite a few library books to read on flights.
This spring, Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl and Alice McDermott’s Someone separately made their way into my carry-on bag. I read them about a month apart, and it was a fascinating experience.
If they were people, these books would be fraternal twins. And usually I don’t like reading twin books so close together, but these were alike and unlike in just the right ways. Both tell the story of a girl coming of age in the early 1900s, and the main characters share some salient qualities and life events. The Boston Girl‘s Addie Baum, born in 1900, and Someone‘s Marie Commeford, born in the 1920s, are both strong-willed girls who grow into even stronger-willed women. Both are rattled by the death of loved ones, experience early romantic setbacks that force them to rethink how they approach marriage, and choose paths that buck many traditions of the time.
But while Marie grows up in a supportive, loving family, Addie has to leave home to escape both physical and emotional abuse. And while The Boston Girl is primarily a chronological tale of events, Someone is semi-linear and focuses more on Marie’s inner life and the way she relates to the world around her. Ultimately, the two books balance and complement each other in a way that makes it hard to imagine reading one without the other.
I’ve often implied – or directly stated – on this blog that diversity of experience is a key element of inspiring books for girls. At its heart, I think acceptance of diversity is what feminism is all about: the notion that women and girls aren’t all the same, that one personality type, one way of behaving, one life purpose, isn’t right for all of us, and that such diversity is not merely acceptable but something to celebrate.
Someone and The Boston Girl, separately but even more in tandem, are beautiful examples of that celebration of diversity. Addie is a clear-headed, self-assured doer; Marie is an impetuous, sometimes uncertain thinker. Addie escapes abuse; Marie is surrounded by love but endures seemingly endless loss. Addie is from a working-class background; Marie’s family is solidly middle class. But both grow into strong women who choose their own paths and thrive because of it.
Both books are also a reminder that feminism has been – and, for that matter, still is – an evolving, diverse concept. Addie accepts her mother’s control and abuse for an uncomfortable length of time. Marie wrestles with denial and prejudice related to her brother’s sexuality. Both ultimately make the traditional choice to get married, take their husband’s names, and become mothers and full-time homemakers.
Yet there’s no doubt that both are strong, independent women and that they are both constantly growing and evaluating their lives and the world around them. It’s also clear that, while their ultimate romantic choices are traditional, they aren’t made in a traditional way. For both women, marriage is more a deliberate choice of partners – men who love and support them unconditionally, in all their unconventionality – than a passive acquiescence to an inevitable concept.
It’s a good reminder to today’s women that those who came before us had to fight inch-by-inch for much that we take for granted. We’re in the position of finishing the battle, rather than starting it. And with their thought-provoking focus on a bygone era, both Someone and The Boston Girl lead us to ask ourselves a very inspiring question: “What legacy will we leave for the women who come behind us?”