Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sisters, OY!!!!!

When I was growing up, I had this terrific book called "Stories for Free Children." Approximately the size and shape of a magazine, it contained feminist fairy tales, stories dealing with other cultures before "multiculturalism" was trendy, and essays aimed at children explaining why gun violence is bad, why it's wrong to pay women less than men for doing the same job (a practice I still can't believe goes on), and why it's wrong to make fun of kids with disabilities. The book was edited by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. Magazine. I loved that book so much that her name was burned into my subconscious, even though I hadn't thought of her for decades, until I was at the Weensy Library near my job and saw that she'd written a novel.

Three Daughters. Of course, I picked it up and took it home with me. I finished it last week, and I'm glad I pushed through, because it was pretty rewarding and enjoyable.

It was a little tough at first. The "Three Daughters" of the title -- Leah, Rachel and Shoshanna -- are not just Jewish, but the daughters of a rabbi. Judaism plays a major role as a force in the lives of the three women, and at first I felt that the novel had been written mostly for Jewish people, as an inside joke I'd never get. The community I work in has a huge Jewish population, though, and I've picked up a few terms, so I felt encouraged enough when I encountered them in the novel to keep going.

Three Daughters is basically about secrets and lies, and coming to terms with them. Though the three women are sisters, you find out early on that they weren't raised thusly. Leah's father and Rachel's mother had both been divorced at a time when that was frowned on, and found each other. Leah continued to live part-time with her biological mother, until her unstable mother reclaimed her and forbade her father to have anything to do with her. By this point, Shoshanna had been born, and by coincidence, Leah's father got a new job.

Shockingly, he went along with it. Rachel and Shoshanna moved with their parents. Shoshanna was told Rachel was her sister. She knew nothing of Leah. The entire extended family went along with the lie, until the day when Shoshanna was ten and one of her cousins hatefully blurted out the truth.

Obviously, this would have quite an effect on a person, whether you were the one cast out, the one lied to, or the one who kept everyone's secrets. The women are between 50 and 65 when the novel takes place, and through the course of the book, they all work through and past their own issues.

Interesting to me was the strong current of feminism that runs through the book. Leah and Shoshanna become close during the 1960s, when Leah is a newly-minted PhD active in the women's movement, and Shoshanna is an impressionable 14-year-old, fascinated by both her older sibling and the women's rights movement. The movement seemingly passed Rachel by -- housewife, mother of five, active in Hadassah and other respectable causes -- but even Rachel has more than meets the eye.

I do hate to say it, but Three Daughters is the type of book that won't appeal to men at all. It's strictly a women's novel. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but one I noticed. It was neat to be reunited with Pogrebin after all these years, and made me wonder what else she's written.