From the Old World to the Old West: A review of The Little Bride

 

The Little Bride
Anna Solomon
314 pages, softcover: $15.
Riverhead, 2011.

Anna Solomon's fascinating first novel The Little Bride begins in Russia in the 1880s, when Minna Losk, a 16-year-old orphan, signs up to become a mail-order bride. After the death of her father, Minna worked for a while as a maid for a once-wealthy woman. Now, however, with pogroms against Jews increasing in number and intensity and little hope for a better life in Odessa, she decides to try her luck in America as the wife of a Jewish man she's never met.

Solomon's premise is irresistible as Minna embarks on a journey similar to those many real-life immigrant settlers made. Her sensuous writing transports the reader from Odessa's "acacias in full bloom, her lizards asleep in the last sun, the scent of tomato plants coming up off the piers" to the sickness and filth of the voyage to America, the ship's floor "slick with vomit." Minna lands in New York, which feels "like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions."

Minna dreams of finding a young husband and enjoying the bustle and community of city life. Instead, her spouse, Max, turns out to be an "old" man of 40, who lives in a sod hut in South Dakota, where a group of Jewish settlers who'd never farmed before are struggling to make a go of it on the harsh prairie.

Minna also becomes the stepmother to two teenage sons, one of whom she's attracted to, a complication that leads both of them into uncomfortable moral territory. Max is Orthodox to a degree that is impractical on the frontier, letting hail destroy a wheat crop because he refuses to harvest on the Sabbath. Ruth, a neighbor, counsels Minna. Try to love Max, she urges, to which Minna replies, "I barely know him." Ruth shoots back, "And you think you are original in this?"

The bitter South Dakota winter leaves the family snowed in and on the verge of starving. At the end, the plot takes a few improbable turns involving a circus wagon that happens by and a case of love at first sight. Still, The Little Bride remains a riveting journey -- an intensely imagined reconstruction of what life might have been like for many women pioneers.