Teen Girls and Magic in the 1900s, a guest post by Sacha Lamb
When the Angels Left the Old Country is a fairytale grounded in history, specifically what’s known in American Jewish history as the Great Wave of Immigration. This lasted roughly from 1880 until the early 1920s. I have got my master’s degree with a thesis on Jewish women and immigration in the 1920s, and Angels combines my love of history with my love of folklore. In many ways, it’s a response to the books that first inspired me to study history: my steady childhood diet of Dear America diaries and other novels that used the engaging voices of teenage girls to introduce readers to different times and places.
During the Great Wave, teenage girls are especially visible actors. The sweatshops and textile factories of the big cities in the early 1900s were packed with young women, many of them under the age of 20, some of them the first members of their family to come to America or the first to learn English. In the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, where men and boys aspired to religious learning and discriminatory laws kept Jews out of secular education and many professions, girls and women became breadwinners. These “daughters of the Shtetl” (the title of a great book about Jewish immigrant women by Susan Glenn) stepped out of their homes and drew their families and communities after them into the modern industrialized world.
The protagonists of my novel are two supernatural creatures and two teenage girls. Uriel and Little Ash, the angel and demon patrons of a small village in Poland, are drawn to leave for America by the news that one of the daughters of the village, Essie, has disappeared in New York City. Rose Cohen, meanwhile, is the oldest child of her family and determined to make a better life for all of them, which leads her to set off on the journey alone. Rose meets Little Ash and Uriel on the ship to America and joins them in searching for Essie. Essie, meanwhile, is dealing with the challenges of making a life by oneself in America—human smugglers, bad labor practices, and malevolent ghosts.
The characters interact with labor unions, gangsters, and unsympathetic gatekeepers. While I kept the exact timeline of the novel ambiguous to maintain a folkloric feel, I was inspired by real events and individuals. One of the most famous labor disasters of the early 20th century, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, is particularly resonant in Jewish immigrant memory. 146 factory workers died because their bosses kept the doors locked to prevent inventory theft, and scraps of highly flammable cotton were allowed to pile up in the workroom. Many of those 146 were teenage girls, and many were Jewish. The factory in my novel is not the Triangle factory, but its practices are similar, with inhumane disregard for workers’ health and safety in the name of maximum profit (thank goodness we’ve progressed past that kind of thing in these modern times, right?).
One of the labor union organizers who responded with passion and righteous indignation to the Triangle atrocity, Rose Schneiderman, is an inspiration for the spitfire character of Rose in the novel. The real-life Rose Schneiderman became a union leader by twenty years old, and she was also most likely a lesbian—one of a handful of women labor leaders whose most significant personal relationships were with other women (to learn more about these women, check out Annelise Orleck’s collective biography COMMON SENSE AND A LITTLE FIRE). Accounts of union actions in the 1910s often feature this tiny, red headed girl standing on a box to make her fiery speeches.
Essie’s character draws on another archetype of the early 20th century Jewish woman, the secular intellectual with revolutionary leanings. While not all educated women were as transgressive as the famous anarchist Emma Goldman, fighting for a secular education was a major way that Jewish girls stretched their wings from the 19th century on. In some ways it was actually easier for Jewish girls to get secular education in the Pale of Settlement than it was for boys, since the patriarchal structures of traditional Jewish society let them skate by under the radar. One real woman who was attracted by the promises of secular education and revolutionary socialism was the sister of famous novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, Esther Singer Kreitman, whose novel THE DANCE OF THE DEMONS depicts the frustration and anguish of a girl who feels trapped by her lack of access to intellectual pursuits.
Passion for education is a common thread in the writing of many immigrant women as well, including in the novels of Anzia Yezierska, who is little known now but before the Great Depression, had pieces adapted into major Hollywood movies. Alongside Yezierska’s novels are memoirs such as Rose Cohen’s (yes, I named my character after her!) OUT OF THE SHADOW: A RUSSIAN JEWISH GIRLHOOD ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE and Mary Antin’s THE PROMISED LAND.
I love reading these works by women who were young girls at the same time as my young girl protagonists. I want my book to be an invitation to explore the fascinating lives of real people, Jewish girls and young women in particular, who shaped this period of Eastern European and American history. The energy and passion of teenage girls drives historical change, and I hope that Rose and Essie’s stories will pass along to my readers the excitement of getting to know the young women of the past.
Meet the author
Sacha Lamb is a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellow in young adult fiction, and graduated in Library and Information Science and History from Simmons University. Sacha lives in New England with a miniature dachshund mix named Anzu Bean. Their debut novel, When The Angels Left The Old Country has received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. Sacha can be found on twitter @mosslamb.
About When the Angels Left the Old Country
In publishing-speak, here’s what we at the LQ office sometimes describe as the Queer lovechild of Sholem Aleichem and Philip Roth:
Uriel the angel and Little Ash (short for Ashmedai) are the only two supernatural creatures in their shtetl (which is so tiny, it doesn’t have a name other than Shtetl). The angel and the demon have been studying together for centuries, but pogroms and the search for a new life have drawn all the young people from their village to America. When one of those young emigrants goes missing, Uriel and Little Ash set off to find her.
Along the way the angel and demon encounter humans in need of their help, including Rose Cohen, whose best friend (and the love of her life) has abandoned her to marry a man, and Malke Shulman, whose father died mysteriously on his way to America.
But there are obstacles ahead of them as difficult as what they’ve left behind. Medical exams (and demons) at Ellis Island. Corrupt officials, cruel mob bosses, murderers, poverty. The streets are far from paved with gold.
With cinematic sweep and tender observation, Sacha Lamb presents a totally original drama about individual purpose, the fluid nature of identity, and the power of love to change and endure.
Publisher: Levine Querido
Publication date: 10/18/2022
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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