I didn’t mean for this to be the week for historical fiction, but the coincidence—and the news—is happy indeed. Elana Dykewomon’s 1998 Lambda Literary Award winner Beyond the Pale is finally back in print and available for the first time in a number of years. How wonderful it is to have this powerful, moving chronicle of Jewish life in imperialist Russia and America once again accessible.
Gutke Gurvich is a midwife in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, delivering one Chava Mayer. Both find their way to America, Gurvich along with her wife Dovid (always attired in men’s clothing) and Mayer after her mother is raped and killed during a pogrom. Their paths cross again, Gurvich and her wife mentoring Mayer in her coming out process in New York City’s Lower East Side against the backdrop of women’s suffrage and labor union movements, culminating in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.
This book, however, is so much more than its plot. Dykewomon’s characters are amazing; mothers, daughters, friends, lovers, and enemies all intertwine to become part of one fascinating world whether here or in Russia. One doesn’t get much of a sense of place from either the scenes in Russia or in Manhattan, but I think that’s purposeful and serves to put the emphasis on life’s events rather than where they take place, drawing attention to their universality.
And these rich, textured, layered, finely nuanced characters speak some marvelous truths about being lesbian, being women, being Jewish or just being, as in the following passage:
When we consider our youth, we see only ourselves and the way the world unfolds in front of us. We are full figures walking among cutouts of buildings and people, never knowing exactly what’s behind them—and we don’t care. But gradually we grow smaller and smaller, until we are part of the landscape in which we move, and then we find others all around us, moving, becoming part of time.
However, she doesn’t leave the more mundane aspects of life unobserved:
Men must have a factory where they make disagreements. Ordinary ones sold for a couple of kopecks, big ones for a ruble. My family kept this factory in business, the men especially men. Women worked so men could argue.
Dykewomon’s prose is magnificent and her choices impeccable, but what really makes this work is her uncanny ear for dialogue and her readiness to expose the reader to love. Yes, her characters love themselves and others, but above that, they love life. They have passion, they have commitment, and they have a realistic sense of their places and priorities in the world.
But the real experience of this book must be in the reading. It’s warm, thought-provoking, emotional, resonating, and it crackles with the kind of vitality that comes with eternal and honest truths. If you haven’t read it before, you need to. If you have, you need to re-experience it.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler