Beyond the Pale – Elana Dykewomon (Open Road)

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Buy it now from Amazon.com

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 onces 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. 

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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1 Comment

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One response to “Beyond the Pale – Elana Dykewomon (Open Road)

  1. Pingback: Link Round Up: August 12 – 20 | The Lesbrary

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